*Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers of Game of Thrones Season 7, used for illustrative purposes.*
As a priest, and someone who believes in the importance of confessing one’s sins, I should confess that, for the past couple of months, I have been actively cheering for a romance that undeniably violates the Biblical rules of proscribed sexual relations. Specifically, I have been rooting for two characters in Game of Thrones who are aunt and nephew to fall in love and begin a relationship, in direct contravention of Leviticus 18:12 (“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister”).
In my defense, there are mitigating circumstances. Because I read George R. R. Martin’s books, on which Game of Thrones is based, long before the show was even in development, I’ve known Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen for many years, and they’ve been favorites of mine just as they’ve been favorites of many fans of both the books and the show. In addition to being interesting, likeable, and mostly competent as leaders, Jon and Daenerys are two of the few characters who’ve survived to this point that fans can imagine in something resembling a healthy romantic relationship with another character, though to this point in the books the two have never been in anything approaching geographical proximity.
Season 7, however, is the second season in which the show has advanced beyond the books, treating fans to some long-anticipated moments, a few big surprises, and the confirmation of a very popular theory about Jon’s parentage. Up until the end of Season 6, Jon was believed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark, the series’ first protagonist, but based on careful study of the books, fans had theorized that Jon was actually the son of Rhaegar, Daenerys’ much older brother, and Ned’s sister. The Season 7 finale not only confirmed the theory but established that Jon’s parents had gotten married in secret.
Over the course of July and August’s episodes, Jon and Daenerys met as potentially rival monarchs, considered the possible shape of an alliance between them, and brought out the best in each other as leaders (and as actors). As we watched the obvious physical attraction growing between them, Daenerys risked her life to save Jon, he pledged fealty to her, and we saw him enter her cabin by night while we listened to voiceover from two other characters putting together the pieces that revealed Jon as Daenerys’ nephew.
For me, and many other fans if the internet is any indication, this raised all kinds of mixed feelings. On the one hand, we love these characters, they fell for each other while ignorant of their familial relationship (how they react when they find out is a mystery awaiting us in Season 8), and we’ve seen how good they are together and for each other. On the other hand, nobody likes cheering on incest, especially when so many of the show’s tragic events are consequences of the ongoing affair between the queen of the realm and her twin brother. In the balance, I’ve concluded that, for Daenerys and Jon, I’m okay with it, even though it does violate my Biblical understanding of acceptable sexual relations.
My purpose in making this confession is not to justify my enjoyment of entertainment featuring plenty of morally reprehensible behaviors, but to wrestle with a deeper issue. In cheering for the incestuous romance between Jon and Daenerys, am I offering grace to familiar, beloved fictional characters that I wouldn’t extend to strangers in real life? Do I condemn a behavior in the abstract only to offer absolution when I know and like the practitioners?
This is a not insignificant problem. The less well we know a person, the easier it is for us to denounce their sin; the better we know someone’s story, the more likely we are to forgive the errors they commit. Although the Gospels don’t explicitly state this, the Pharisees and Jesus embody this tension: the former named tax collectors and prostitutes as irredeemable sinners and avoided them like the plague, while the latter ate with them and loved them as children of God. Once you’ve heard the story of a woman forced into prostitution by her boyfriend or kidnapped and trafficked halfway across the globe, you cannot consider prostitutes a bunch of hopeless, wanton temptresses.
Or look at King David, who abuses his power to commit adulterous rape and has a loyal soldier betrayed to his death to cover it up. Such behavior is really difficult to excuse, and yet, in Judaism and Christianity, David’s story is often told and his egregious sins are absolved. Like Daenerys and Jon, we know and like David enough to continue rooting for him even after what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah, and he remains a central and revered figure in the history of our forebears in faith.
As followers of Jesus, we must navigate between an ethical Scylla and Charybdis here. There is the danger that, with our friends and loved ones, we know them so well that we will readily excuse their sinful behaviors without considering the real harm they might be doing to themselves or others. But there is an at least equal danger that we will condemn people over a behavior viewed from a distance, without asking for their story or considering the possibility that they made the most moral decision they could in the circumstances.
I noticed this in myself as Hurricane Irma approached Florida. Although I assumed without asking that a friend who chose not to leave was making the right decision, I found myself judging the masses who didn’t evacuate as foolish. It took reading an article that spelled out the reasons interviewees weren’t leaving (such as being unable to afford gas, lacking transportation options at all, and having no place to go beyond the hurricane’s path) for me to understand that failure to evacuate is not just a product of unthinking stubbornness. And as I waited for the predictable headlines about looting, I realized that I had already read the looters’ stories: the same constraints that prevent people from evacuating can also result in a closed store being the only available source of food.
I could go on with examples: I was a homophobe before befriending a couple of gay men in the Episcopal campus ministry, I didn’t really understand the need for feminism until I dated a woman who told me about the discrimination and dismissal she faced, I avoided the post-9/11 Islamophobia only because one of my quiz bowl teammates was Muslim. My point is that, when all we see is a forest defined by a common behavior or trait, it’s easy to judge the whole forest sinful and worthy of burning; when we see even one individual tree in that forest and know their story, we must confront the fact that every tree has their own story, and on hearing that story, we might find ourselves identifying their sin as an expression of love and not a sin at all, or might forgive that particular sinner as doing their best under the circumstances, or might just be willing to leave judgment to God and love the person anyway.
So while I continue to believe that incest is sinful behavior and I would have a much harder time cheering for a marriage between real practitioners thereof than I do the fictional Jon and Daenerys, I do wonder if there are groups of people who I perceive as sinners in the abstract to whom I would extend grace if I knew one of them individually. And that, in turn, reminds me that my first duty is to love my neighbors, which I cannot do without knowing them, which I cannot do if I’ve already judged them in the abstract, before listening to their story.
The Rev. John Adams
Last month, our Diocesan summer camp, Camp Canterbury, gathered with a storytelling theme; through our worship, discipleship groups, and workshops, we practiced telling our own stories, listening to the stories of others, and connecting our stories with the great story of God’s relationship with creation. Of particular interest to me was the slam poetry workshop; the campers were invited to take a story (Biblical or otherwise) and write a poem imagining that story from the perspective of a non-speaking animal or object (the birth of Jesus from the donkey’s perspective, for example). I was struck when a couple of campers shared poems from the perspective of weapons in pop culture (a villain’s baseball bat and a hero’s lightsaber) and they instinctively observed that the inanimate object, not having to buy into its wielder’s story of good and evil, could question the morality of the killings it was executing.
Since then, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the degree to which our ethics are framed by the story we imagine ourselves living, and how a problem that seems to be a difficult ethical dilemma if you’re telling yourself one story becomes totally obvious if you think you’re in a different story. A good example of this is depicted in American Fable, a genre-defying 2016 film that recently showed up on Netflix. Set during the Reagan era in a depressed rural community, we enter the story from the perspective of Gitty, a farmer’s daughter with a fantastic imagination. While exploring the officially-off-limits silo at the edge of their property, she finds that it is occupied by a mysterious man. Based on a story he tells her, Gitty imagines the man as a wish-granting spirit, like a leprechaun or genie, and brings him food and books while he teaches her to play chess.
The viewer slowly discovers that, in her father’s story, the farm is failing, he is deep in debt, and he is working with a mysterious woman (who his daughter sees as a demonic figure riding around) in a desperate attempt to hold onto his property. At the woman’s behest, the farmer has imprisoned the man whose company is buying up farms in the region; when the man is ransomed, the woman will give the farmer the money he needs to keep going. As a viewer, it makes for an interesting ethical statement: in the abstract, hopefully all of us would consider holding another person against his will an immoral act, but the farmer clearly believes that he is doing right in causing the man minimal harm in order to protect his own property and family, and when we watch his story, we find ourselves sympathizing if not agreeing with the decision he made.
The movie then takes a turn when it comes out that Gitty has been talking to the captive, shattering the illusions that only the farmer and the mysterious woman know there’s someone in the silo and that the captive is ignorant of his captor’s identity. As the farmer agonizes over what to do, Martin (Gitty’s older brother) decides to take matters into his own hands: having been told by the mysterious woman that the world is divided into warriors and the weak whom the warriors defend, Martin decides that he must be a warrior, doing anything necessary to protect his family. In his story, all ethical dilemmas are framed and solved by determining which course of action best helps or least harms the family, without weighing other considerations.
American Fable truly impressed me as a film that allows the viewer to see how a complicated ethical challenge looks different when seen as part of three different stories: Gitty’s childish fantasy, the farmer’s desperate fight against economic problems, and Martin’s story of himself as a warrior. Within the children’s stories, the solution to the problem of the man in the silo is completely obvious even as each child is certain the other is wrong. For the farmer, the children’s black-and-white perspectives force him to consider his actions as told through stories other than his own.
Without delving too deep into the political weeds, I hope the implications for our national and religious lives are obvious: the story you imagine yourself in will dictate what you consider ethical responses to the problems we face. For example, if the story of America is the story of European Christians who left in order to freely practice their brand of Christianity, then it is ethical to suppress Islam in America. If the story of America is the story of enterprising Europeans who left in order to establish their own economic hegemony, then the preservation of that order becomes the highest good. If the story of America is the story of folks who truly believed in contrast to Europe that “all men are created equal,” then the moral thing to do is whatever opposes extant inequalities and expands the definition of men to cover all people living here.
The same thinking applies to Christianity. How do you understand the story of Jesus? Is it the story of an exemplary moral teacher? The story of the prophet of the end times? The story of a substitutionary sacrifice for human sin? The story of a movement that offers the only way for people to join God? The story of God telling us through Word and example that God is love and we are to love God and one another? The story of Jesus as you understand it will determine what you think the moral responses are to religious plurality, diversity of sexuality and gender, wars and rumors of wars, poverty, climate change, and other great issues of our times. And the different ways we understand the story of Jesus help explain the intractable differences between Christians over such issues.
I believe that the story of Jesus is the story of God’s love, and that of other ways to understand the story some are less wrong than others. But I’m not trying to make a polemical point as much as I am trying to encourage you to be aware of the stories you imagine yourself in as an individual, as an American, as a Christian, as a rancher, as a gunowner, as middle-class, as whatever. If you are conscious of the stories you tell yourself, and aware how your stories frame your ethical perspectives, then you can be more attentive to the stories of others, and thus see how the different stories suggest different moral actions. Maybe in doing so we will start to identify problems in our stories that lead us to take actions others find immoral, but at a minimum, God willing, all of us will be better able to exchange stories while acknowledging the full humanity of each storyteller.
The Rev. John Adams
Friday, September 29th (7 pm – 9:00 pm)
Saturday, September 30th (8:30 am – 3:00 pm)
St. David’s Episcopal Church 8800 Holdrege Street, Lincoln, NE
The VISION of INVITE * WELCOME * CONNECT is…
To change the culture of The Episcopal Church to move from maintenance to mission.
Underwritten by The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, in partnership with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Omaha, and hosted by St. David’s Episcopal Church, Lincoln, you are invited to participate in a summit focusing on offering hospitality to the stranger in our midst. Invite * Welcome * Connect is designed for teams of lay people and clergy. The presenter, Mary Parmer, has 10 years of experience in evangelism and newcomer ministry in the Diocese of Texas and throughout The Episcopal Church in the USA and in Europe. She has conducted summits and workshops in 40 Episcopal dioceses.
Click here to access the registration form. The cost, per participant, is $25 which will cover the cost of materials, continental breakfast, lunch and breaks. A block of rooms is being held at the Staybridge Suite Hotel, 2701 Fletcher Ave, 402.438.7829 (across the street from St. David’s). Rates range from $95.99 –
$125.99 for Friday night (Saturday night based on availability). Please reference Invite*Welcome*Connect when you call for reservations. Deadline for accommodation reservations is September 1st to receive the group rate.
Please mark your calendars and plan to bring a team to participate in this summit guaranteed to change your ways of sharing the Good News through evangelism and welcoming. For more information, visit Mary’s website: http://www.invitewelcomeconnect.com/. If you have questions about the conference or logistics, please contact The Rev. Diane Pike at St. Andrew’s, Omaha: 402-391-1950 or email@example.com.
Good morning. Yesterday, the Church commemorated Saint Mary Magdalene. Hers is a remarkable story, but probably not for the reasons many of you think. When I say Magdalene, most people who recognize the name think of what generations of believers considered to be the worst kind of sinner: prostitutes – those who sold their bodies for money. Mary Magdalene is remembered as one of these lowly women who Jesus forgave. After that, she went on to faithfully follow him. However, much like today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat, there is a lot more to the story than what most of us might know.
Mary Magdalene existed; the name Magdalene derives from Magdala, a city in Galilee. The first biblical reference to her comes in Luke 8: 2, where it is noted that Jesus drove seven demons out of her and also cured other women of evil spirits and infirmities. According to this passage, these women evidently held sufficient means to provide for Jesus and the twelve apostles traveling with him in some manner. Significantly, all four Gospels present Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ death and all four also cite her as the first to learn about the resurrection, most dramatically in a conversation with the risen Christ in John. These passages are the only specific biblical references to Mary Magdalene by name. Acts 1: 14 notes that certain women remained with the apostles in Jerusalem following the ascension and, although the text does not cite Mary Magdalene, biblical scholars assume she was one of these.
One could presume from these passages that Mary Magdalene became a faithful servant and travelled with the apostles throughout the remainder of her life. This includes the brave example of not fleeing the way others did when the going got really rough after Jesus’ arrest, and even remaining to witness the crucifixion. These passages provide examples of devoted service by Mary Magdalene specifically, but also indicate the important role of women in the early church. I am proud and grateful to acknowledge that from the pulpit of a church that both ordains women and celebrates their voice and leadership in the church today in myriad other ways as well. Additionally, she offers a powerful example of faithfulness in that she is the first witness to the resurrection. She is tasked with heralding the good news, and in the tradition of the Eastern Church that persists to date, Mary Magdalene is esteemed as an equal to the apostles. How then did she earn such a reputation that never specifically appears in Scripture?
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon that solidified Mary’s reputation in the Western church forevermore as a redeemed prostitute. He conflated three textual references to women and used these to form a composite person. Gregory described this Mary as a prostitute who begged forgiveness from Jesus and received it. Simultaneously, he omitted the texts that referenced Magdalene as a continuing faithful servant of Jesus and companion of the apostles in the early church. It wasn’t until the 1960s that efforts began to undo Pope Gregory’s portrait and re-assert the actual historical Mary Magdalene of the Scriptures. We could study all the motives biblical scholars and historians have offered as explanations for Gregory’s harlotization of Mary Magdalene, but really…too often too many of us today are guilty of the same one-dimensional, blanket consideration of people – including even ourselves. Too often, we – as a society, in our small groups, or as individuals — become too ready to accept convenient explanations, even if that means writing someone off as a weed. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that it’s not that simple. It is too hard for us, walking in the field beside each other today, to know what is for sure weed from wheat.
Instead, in this parable Jesus reminds us that we are all wheat and weeds intertwined. Jesus likely envisioned a poisonous plant called the darnel to make this point. Darnel and wheat looked very similar in their early stages. The roots of darnel and wheat grew intertwined, so it was no simple task to try to simply pull out the weeds. To do anything drastic to hurt the weed meant destroying the good with it at a time when the plant was still growing and it was too early to know which was which. Thus, Jesus calls on us to wait and watch. Let growth occur – there will be time to sort out what is truly good and bad later, by the experts (in this case, the angels). To put it in a more direct way as our psalmist did, only God truly knows our hearts – only God really knows if we are the wheat or the weed, and God will decide that in God’s time.
In the Gospel today, we are not called to weed but to till the soil of God’s garden on earth. Jesus doesn’t task us to weed in the field of community. Instead, our work is to prepare the soil so that good and healthy creation can grow. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Romans when he states that we have the responsibility to set creation from the bondage of its decay. We are to strive to be a community where people who have never had a chance to do so truly can feel and experience the sunlight of the spirit and what spiritual growth means. This isn’t just a nice, do-gooder impulse. It is our very duty. We answer this in the way we live together in community in many ways – when we welcome the stranger, as you did me. When we offer love and support to those who are going through challenges in our broader community, as we do with all of our outreach programs. And we do this when we gather together for worship and bible study, and for coffee and conversations. And when we take care of each other in all the other ways that we tend to each other’s needs.
Jesus provided us very real examples of the lengths to which this commitment is to extend as he dined with sinners and tax collectors, forgave an adulteress, and redeemed those consumed by their demons – even in Mary Magdalene’s case, a woman who presented herself sick with seven of them. But these examples are not weeds any more so than those of us sitting here today are! I think that’s what Jesus is reminding us – there is darkness that tempts all of us at times. I have gone through times in my life when I’ve lived it more like a very unhealthy weed rather than flourishing wheat. I’ve made bad choices and I’ve sinned. But those bad choices and those sins – those times are not the end of my story. That’s the Christian promise of redemption open to all.
In Aramaic, the language Jesus used, Magdalene means tower of strength. Mary Magdalene’s example is so much more to us than that of a repentant sinner, as vitally important as that is. The collect for her commemoration yesterday notes how Jesus restored her to health of body and mind. Hers is a story of fully becoming wheat and of tending to the gifts of creation. After she was redeemed by Jesus, she didn’t just go away to a comfortable life. She stayed with Him. She gave what she had to help others, and she remained to be of service – not just when Jesus was on earth, but through the tumultuous years of the early church. She represents fearlessness in following Jesus – even going to the cross with him – and gritty determination to herald the gospel message, even when it is not well received. It is because of her strength and grace in receiving the gifts of healing and recovery that the church marked a day to commemorate her example.
Twelve step recovery programs are spiritually-based, and the seventh step is all about humility and relying on God’s help to get there. I think the Seventh Step Prayer is very much in line with Jesus’ parable today, and what Mary Magdalene’s example demonstrates for us. In the first part of the Seventh Step Prayer, we humbly ask God to accept us as we are – good and bad — and for God to remove our defects of character, or those weeds intertwined with the wheat. These weeds are what stand in the way of our usefulness to God and others. Then in the prayer, we ask for God to give us strength to do God’s work.
Let’s go forth today faithfully asking God for help in removing the weeds from the wheat in our own lives so that we can better work in God’s garden. Let’s work together to prep the soil within us and around us to so that God’s beautiful creation can grow.
At the beginning of July, Series 10 of the revived Doctor Who concluded its two-and-a-half-month regular run (with a Christmas Special still to come). Doctor Who is a long-running BBC science fiction show that follows the adventures of the Doctor, an alien Time Lord who freely travels through space and time, usually with one or more human companions from contemporary Britain. At least once per season, the Doctor saves the earth and/or humankind from an existential threat, acting out his self-appointed role as our defender from alien menaces. Since its 2005 revival (after an extended hiatus), Doctor Who has established itself as a favorite of fans and critics (at least those for whom this sort of fantastic television isn’t a bridge too far).
One could write a long series of essays discussing Christian themes and ideas in Doctor Who, but a couple are of particular interest to me right now. The one that preaches is the salvific power of love, which succeeds in saving people where other efforts fail. To give just two of many examples from the show, in the first series episode “The Doctor Dances,” it looks as though alien medical nanogenes are going to turn all of humankind into broken, gas-mask-wearing creatures with a hive mind (it’s a long, but extremely good, story) when, at the Doctor’s prompting, the mother of the boy who was the first to encounter the nanogenes finally approaches and hugs her now-inhuman son instead of fleeing from him. The net result is that the nanogenes start healing people rather than turning them into copies of a dead boy; the mother’s love has saved humankind from annihilation. Similarly, in “The Lie of the Land” from the most recent season, alien invaders are broadcasting a psychic signal which convinces the people of earth that the aliens have always been our rulers. Bill, the Doctor’s companion, retains her memories of real history by imagining conversations with her long-dead mother; in the end, while attempting to sacrifice herself to break the signal, the love in Bill’s memories proves stronger than the alien lies and, with their hold on people’s minds broken, the aliens retreat rather than fight. Again, love has saved humankind where violent solutions could not; I cannot watch such episodes without thinking that they resonate with the example of Jesus, whose love saves us where our own efforts to save ourselves cannot.
The other theme which presently interests me offers more of a challenge. After the first three seasons of Doctor Who in the 1960s, it became apparent that the actor playing the Doctor was in need of replacement, so the writers devised a concept that would eventually be known as regeneration: when a Time Lord’s body is dying, a biological process releases a burst of energy that heals and reforms said body. In addition to transforming the Doctor’s physical appearance, allowing a new actor to inherit the role, the regeneration also affects memory and personality, allowing the new actor to put his own spin on the role rather than impersonating his predecessor. The idea of regeneration poses interesting questions for Christians. In the person of Jesus, we believe in someone whose self remained even as his body was transformed; like Doctor Who fans who spend the first few episodes of a new Doctor struggling to recognize the familiar character in a new body, the disciples tended not to recognize the resurrected Jesus when he first appeared to them. For ourselves, we believe in a bodily resurrection (articulated from the earliest centuries in the Apostles’ Creed), but most of us also believe in the immortality of our souls independent of our bodies (and thus enduring even through changes in our bodies). So it is very interesting for us to contemplate someone like the Doctor, where the self remains even though the body and the personality of that self change dramatically, and consider how the same might happen to us as members of the body of Christ.
This past week, the BBC announced the actor who will inherit the role of the Doctor from Peter Capaldi during the forthcoming Christmas episode. The Doctor Who lovers of the internet exploded in a predictable mix of fury and jubilation when it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker will play the first female regeneration of the Doctor. Although the announcement of every new Doctor is greeted with dismay from at least some portion of the fandom, I still find it depressing that, in a show limited only by the imaginations of the writers, a female incarnation of the protagonist should evoke such rage, as though the Doctor’s bodily gender would prevent her from saving the earth where Daleks or Cybermen could not.
But then, we in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long had the same problem. Our Scriptures often implicitly deny that the humanity of women is equal to men; just in this summer’s Sunday readings from Genesis (for those following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary), women are assumed to want children without being consulted, cast out into the desert for no reason, and bought and sold as brides. The idea that God calls women as well as men to administer the sacraments and otherwise lead the body of Christ remains controversial in most corners of the Church and unfathomable in many. Among far too many men, and at least some women, the idea of a female conveying God’s salvation is as inconceivable as the notion of a female saving humanity is for some Doctor Who fans.
However, the love of God is indeed limitless, and it is the height of hubris to imagine that God does not fully love women or cannot share God’s love through a woman as easily as a man. So here’s an interesting thought experiment: a woman claims to be the Second Coming, the Word of God incarnate. Do you automatically reject her, assuming that God would not save us through a female messiah, or are you open to the possibility that she could be the one for whom we wait, testing her as you would any man making the same claim? If we cannot conceive of a female Christ, then perhaps we need to spend more time coming to grips with the reality of women as equal humans; perhaps we need to pray that, in the body of Christ, we will be regenerated into that version of ourselves most capable of recognizing God’s image in all our neighbors and sharing God’s love with everyone.
The Rev. John Adams
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral presents its second annual Summer Sing! on Thursday, July 20 at 7:00 p.m. The public is invited to participate in an instant performance of Gloria, a sacred choral masterwork by an Italian Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi. The evening will include an energized one-hour rehearsal followed by a one-hour performance. Scores will be available on loan for the evening, or participants may bring their own copies. Admission is free.
Tom Trenney, nationally acclaimed conductor and organist from First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, will lead the event. “Summer Sing is a popular annual event in Lincoln, and we are pleased to share it with the Omaha community again this year,” stated Marty Wheeler Burnett, Canon Precentor at Trinity Cathedral. “Many church, school, and community choirs are on vacation during the summer months, and this event provides a welcome opportunity to join others in singing some of the world’s greatest music.”
The event is designed as a community sing where all are welcome. Unlike many choirs, no auditions, extra rehearsals, or long-term commitments are required. Casual dress is encouraged. As Burnett suggests, “Music, hospitality, air conditioning, refreshments, and fun combine for perfect summer evening.”
Trinity Cathedral is located at 113 N 18th Street in downtown Omaha. Information is available at http://trinityepiscopal.org. The program is presented by Abendmusik in collaboration with Trinity Cathedral.
On occasion, I listen to country music. I admit that, when I do, I listen to the classics. There is something about old country that screams reality – it’s honest. It talks about real problems, real emotions, real people. It has been even said by David Allan Coe that a proper country song includes things like getting drunk, prison, mama, your pickup truck…real stuff.
A bumper sticker I once saw asked us to consider playing the country song backwards. You know, back in the 80s folks thought that rock music had secret satanic messages if you played it backwards – which, of course, none did. But, play country backwards and you get your wife back, your hound dog back, and your pickup will actually start.
Today we heard in our Genesis lesson about Hagar. She is a servant girl, a woman who has had an intimate relationship with Abraham, born him a son, raised the jealousy of Sarah and today we hear, sent out, abandoned, forsaken, and at that, this woman who has offered herself, service, both in body and hard labor, we clamor and say – that is not fair!!!! But I also recognize, that for many of you, this very morning, are secretly going through similar struggles, sent out, your bearings shifted. You are a mess of emotions, you wonder if anyone cares, you wonder where is God, and you cry out in prayer, – “GOD, SERIOUSLY?”
We say: My wife (or husband) argues with me day and night. There always seem to be more bills than income. The kids are making all kinds of bad decisions. The dog has heartworms. I’m facing a health crisis. Just get the guitar up here, cause I got the stuff of a country song…and yet, in church, we hear: Build your house on the rock. Or even in today’s Gospel, “I came not to give peace, but a sword. GOD SERIOUSLY? When is this supposed to get better?
If we listen to motivational speakers or whatever seems to be selling to the masses, if I just think positively God is breaking barriers and giving me the best life—right? Try telling that to Hagar, or Jesus’ disciples (all but one of them died for the faith, you know, and even John (the one who survived)was so abused he probably wished he was dead.) Tell the myth of Prosperity Gospel Light to those who died in the Coliseum when they were drowned for entertainment, or fed to lions. Tell that to crucified people in Armenia in 1915; Jews, clergy, LGBT folk, or intellectuals in Auschwitz; Jesuits in Japan in the 1500s – All of them echo, “GOD SERIOUSLY?” Even we who have lives that are filled with pain, but are not faced with the prospect of death, pray likewise.
But what if the Rock of our life was actually seeking to polish us? What if, “GOD, SERIOUSLY” was a prayer that got us through successive layers of grit until God could see his image in us. Yes, God…seriously!
When I was growing up, I had a Graves cabochon machine. (Cabochons are gems that have a rounded top, without facets) The machine consisted of a diamond saw which cut larger pieces of gemstone into manageable pieces. Then it had a series of wheels, working from left to right: 80 grit, 150 grit, 400 grit, and then a leather wheel green with chromium oxide, a polishing aid. All of this was cooled by a constant water drip.
Slowly, a rock, hidden in the earth for millions of years becomes less of a doorstop and more like jewelry. Slowly the grit and water, and time reveal something that is prized!
Life is like a country song, it filled with real grit, real trouble. We tend to get angry, our patience is tried, we wonder how we can take it, and yet, the longer we live and the more we see, the grit bothers us less and less. God starts with the diamond saw, clipping off whole chunks at a time, and works through our formative years with some pretty aggressive abrasion. As we enter the senior years, he is polishing, polishing, waiting to see his image, just at the right time to enter God’s Kingdom.
That’s what Christian community at its best does, it is a polisher…except when we short-circuit the process because it’s just too hard, too painful.
Sadly we often react to the polishing, sometimes we attack, lashing out at the polisher. We blame, we ignore God, we keep our distance from our brothers and sisters in the Church. Really, we act like Jonah and walk in a passive aggressive way – totally the opposite way that God wants us to go.
Other folks just shut down by avoidance. They leave the room, they leave the church, they just have to get away because the grit is too hard. The polishing is too intense. Still others just shut down through emotional isolation. They don’t fight and they don’t flee, they just go inside and put up walls.
Our emergency defense is how we protect ourselves when we feel threatened. But God is trying to polish us in every situation. We may feel like life has become a bit too much like a Merle Haggard ballad and were all praying the same thing: GOD SERIOUSLY? But can we see God working in our midst, or are we too clouded by the friction of when God is working?
What if we did not have to stay in that place? What if we accepted the polishing. What if we decided to accept becoming the jewel and less of a boulder. Even in the desert, God cared for Hagar. God knew the story. He vindicated her cause. God loved her son Ishmael. God heard Hagar. God saw her abandonment and her plea, “GOD…SERIOUSLY?”
This doesn’t mean we deny our pain or repress it or pretend it isn’t there—it’s real and God is a big God to take exactly the real emotion we give him. God is not challenged like our Aunt Suzy who gets off in a huff if she is even challenged. GOD GETS US, and He gets that “God, seriously?” prayer even before we are ready to offer it.
Today, I ask you if your struggles are a bit too much like a country song. Maybe you are praying the “God, seriously?” prayer. Maybe you are praying the Eight Word Prayer – “Oh, God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” Maybe the heat of being against God’s polishing wheel is just too much and you are thinking you are going to crack…God’s listening. He is working on things you will never even comprehend. He is an Almighty God, not a limited one. He’s polishing you. Let him turn you from a doorstop boulder to the jewel of his delight. It might not be comfortable, you might have a lot of heat, but God isn’t done with you yet!
But even more than that, remember that you are in a group of folks going through the same thing. We are all being polished. Some of us have lopped off corners, some are cracked, some of us have taken all the polishing we can stand in this time in our life. You belong – HERE. It is here -the Church – that you find the quench of the constant drip of the Water of Life, which quenches the heat and soothes our pain.
So I should imagine that the steel guitars and fiddles are crying away on the road to Heaven. The road from here to there is often paved with pain and friction. You are not alone. The Church is here to work along with you. It’s here you belong – let’s work through the grit, and the hurt, and even the song, together. Amen.
The Reverend Robert M. Lewis, D.Min., Rector
Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island
*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot and characters of Wonder Woman (2017). If you haven’t seen it yet, why not? Straying into movie criticism for a bit, and setting aside the argument advanced below, Wonder Woman is about as good as superhero movies get, particularly origin stories. The acting (and the chemistry among the actors) is compelling, the action sequences are strong and (for the most part) don’t feel familiar from other action movies, the plot is straightforward and coherent, and it manages to balance a fun spirit with the consideration of serious issues (more on which below) better than most movies in any genre. So go see it; this essay will still be here tomorrow.*
In contemporary theological discussions of war, the so-called “myth of redemptive violence” is never far in the background. Coined by the Methodist theologian Walter Wink, the myth of redemptive violence is the term for a plot archetype that reinforces the ideology of a violent status quo. In the archetype, a violent, evil power rules and oppresses the world until a hero rises to oppose them. Through actions that may be similar to or even worse than those of the oppressor (particularly violence), the hero defeats the oppressor, inaugurating a new era that could only come about through the violent destruction of the old. Such stories (which occur in ancient mythology, religion, the interpretation of history, and various forms of entertaining fiction) encourage the readers and hearers to identify themselves with the new order and recognize that violence is sometimes necessary to defend that order. To quote Monte Python and the Holy Grail, a myth of redemptive violence invites folks to “come and see the violence inherent in the system” and understand that violence as a good thing.
As Christians, we must question and challenge myths of redemptive violence. In part, this is because we follow Jesus, who told his followers to put away their swords even when their leader was physically threatened (Matthew 26:51-52); his teachings compel us to seriously consider the possibility that no act of violence may be considered good. In part, this is because myths of redemptive violence train us to see those who oppose us and/or differ from us as less than us, deserving of violent oppression in a way we are not, which runs counter to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, 5:44). The danger in questioning myths of redemptive violence lies in the temptation to despair: if my religion, country, and worldview are predicated on such myths, I may stop trying to find anything good in them and give up on them entirely.
At least in my opinion, Wonder Woman does an outstanding job of presenting and challenging a myth of redemptive violence without succumbing to despair. The Amazon Princess Diana is raised on a magically isolated island in an ongoing myth of redemptive violence. After Zeus created mankind as good, his son Ares corrupted them with thoughts of war. Ares turned on his fellow gods and Zeus, able to temporarily neutralize but not kill his son, charged the Amazons with killing Ares when he resurfaced. Growing up in a community of warrior women, Diana was enamored with the martial arts that would be required to fulfill their mission.
When Diana leaves her home to seek and destroy Ares on the Western Front of World War I, she envisions completing the myth: using the Godkiller sword that Zeus gave to the Amazons for that purpose, she will slay Ares and, by doing so, redeem humankind from the violent tendencies that have so long enslaved them. In her understanding, following the contours of the myth, the death of Ares will remove his dark influence on the Germans (the aggressors and bad guys, who have already made war on the Amazons) and bring immediate peace. But she quickly becomes disillusioned, first with her inability to save the many non-combatants who are suffering during the war, then with her human allies, who, although fighting for the British, seem just as enamored of war as their German opponents.
After killing the German general she believes to be Ares, Diana becomes despondent that his death has made no difference, that the myth she believed is invalidated because the violence she committed failed to redeem the men who are fighting. At which point Ares shows up and further dismantles the myth: he tells her that, as god of war, he did not create violent human tendencies but only encourages those tendencies that are already present. On top of that, the Godkiller is not the sword, a single weapon to kill a single source of violence, but the person of Diana, a daughter of Zeus; while she can, and does, slay the god of war, she cannot so easily destroy the violence that lurks in the hearts of men.
In the modern-set frame at the beginning and end of the movie, Diana announces her conclusion: human nature is a mix of the good and the bad. While her own Amazonian violence can defeat other expressions of violence, human and divine, no violent action she could take would root the violence out of human hearts; as she says at the very end, “only love will truly save the world.” Admitting that my only knowledge of the character of Wonder Woman is from this movie and last year’s Batman V Superman, I find this frame particularly satisfying. Having involved herself in the wars of men, she understands that, while her violence can offer a significant advantage to one side, by fighting she cannot stop the human tendency to fight or even save those she loves. But rather than despairing and withdrawing from mankind entirely, she begins to work in antiquities (presumably because in doing so she can devote her energy toward saving good and beautiful things made by humans), again taking up her weapons only when Doomsday, a non-human monster, starts rampaging in her vicinity. She has rejected the myth that her violence will redeem mankind and instead sought a way to cultivate love and beauty; as Sia sings during the movie’s credits, “to be human is to love even when it gets too much. I’m not ready to give up.”
So as a Christian who enjoys movies that often depict violence as redemptive, living in a country that tends to frame its wars as necessary violence against irredeemably evil men, I find Wonder Woman a refreshing and rousing challenge, inviting us to question our leaders and lobbies that see violence as inevitable and, rather than despairing, imagine a future in which love, not war, is the defining feature of human interaction.
The Rev. John Adams
Our DioNeb Creation Community has written a set of short prayers for each day of the week, to be used during this season of Ordinary Time. These collects are unique to our Nebraska setting, and would be appropriate for use in both public and private prayer. May they enrich your prayers in the months to come.
Click here to download the prayers as a PDF document.
Trinity Sunday 2017
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20a)
Along with all the things happening in our nation and the world and all the things happening closer to our parish and our own families this week — and goodness knows there was a lot to take in — something important was happening in the wider Episcopal Church that is worth our noting this Sunday.
Friday the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church began a three day meeting. Executive Council meets quarterly to carry out the programs and policies developed in our General Convention and to oversee the ministry and mission of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal News Service yesterday reported on the opening remarks by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings. (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/…/presiding-bishop-foll…/)
Bishop Curry spoke plainly about the moment in history in which we find ourselves. He said that such a time as this is a “strange national, cultural and global moment – when things are being turned upside down, when old patterns don’t work anymore, when the old rules don’t even seem to apply anymore, truth doesn’t seem to be what the truth used to be, and all of a sudden what’s wrong is right. All of a sudden, even Christianity is co-opted by injustice, by lack of compassion, by inhumanity, by indecency.”
We have spoken often here at Church of the Resurrection in recent months about what is happening: the apparent acceptance of hateful speech and actions in our national political arena, our failure to address the urgent climate crisis, the violence exhibited by gun deaths right here in Omaha and acts of terrorism around the world, the wide divide between the very rich and the working poor. Bishop Curry is right to name the truth that even people who might consider themselves Christians have been lured into supporting injustice, lack of compassion, inhumanity, and indecency. Too many Christian churches, and even some parishes in the Episcopal branch of Christianity, gather on Sunday mornings without ever speaking of these things. Some are afraid of offending major donors; some are afraid of upsetting people who don’t want to acknowledge or think about what is happening; some are simply too tired to offer up anything new, anything that speaks to a particular moment or a particular place. And too many self-identified Christians go through the week saying and doing things that are the opposite of what Jesus would have us say and do, making choices dictated by fear and selfishness rather than choices dictated by faith and compassion.
I’m so grateful for parishes like this one and for Christians like most of our sisters and brothers in this community, and I’m also grateful to have leaders in this time both in our diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church who have the energy and courage to speak the truth and name the moment.
We know how important it is to see the world as it is in all its wonder and all its woes. We know how important it is to see and remember the marginalized people in our society who are so easily not seen by others. And we know how important it is to have a living faith that points to the kingdom of God and helps us find the strength and wisdom and love to live into God’s kingdom in all aspects of our daily lives.
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day that reminds us that just as it’s important to see and name the world as it is, it’s important to understand and name God in all of God’s fullness.
In the words of the ancient Athanasian Creed [that you can find in the section of Historical Documents in the back of The Book of Common Prayer], the church teaches:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance.
That is: we worship one God that is somehow three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and those three Persons are somehow One. We don’t confound or mix up those three Persons but are clear about their separate identities, and yet we also don’t say that they are substantially — in the true meaning of the word, in their Substance — divided from one another.
What does any of this matter? At this point in human history, it matters very much that we not tempt people — others or ourselves — to dismiss God and faith because the only God they’ve heard anyone talk about is a lesser god that would be no great loss. If we forget that all three Persons of the Trinity are essential, our understanding of God can easily become an understanding of a small god.
If we forget Jesus and the Holy Spirit, it’s easy to slip into seeing God as distant and unconcerned with us (except perhaps to judge us severely from time to time); if we forget God the Father and the Spirit, it’s easy to slip into seeing Jesus as a great teacher but nothing more, or as a pal who asks little in the way of discipleship; and if we forget God the Father and Jesus and focus solely on the Spirit, it’s easy to become unmoored from our tradition and have only our own experience as a spiritual guide. In all cases, God becomes smaller. Instead of a Living God whose fullness exceeds our powers of language and comprehension, we would instead find a lesser god that is more easily comprehended and also much more easily dismissed.
In his recent book The Divine Dance, Franciscan author Fr. Richard Rohr suggests that we look not so much at the traditional question of how one God can be three Persons, but at the complementary question asked by some Christian mystics and the tradition of the Eastern Church: How can the Three be One? He writes “Don’t start with the One and try to make it into Three, but start with he Three and see that this is the deepest nature of the One.” (p. 43, The Divine Dance)
What we find when we begin with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and ask how they can be One is that God is not a single object to be grasped by our minds, but that the essence of God is relationship, a “flow” of divine energy. “God is love” said the apostle John in his First Epistle, and that may be about as good a summary of the Living Trinitarian God as any other.
God is love. My sisters and brothers, the church now faces a moment unlike any other moment in human history. Along with all the challenges that have been with us a long, long time — violence, Illness, poverty, heartbreak, warfare, political and cultural oppression — we have unleashed the destructive forces of nuclear weapons and of rapidly accelerating climate change.
Pray that the church will meet this moment with theological integrity and truth, because the only way we are going to get through this is by sticking closely to the true God and going out into the world as bearers of God’s truth. We are disciples not of some tame god who sits above a bland world, but of the Living God who does not hesitate to step into our disorder and despair and work powerfully through us in ways we cannot imagine on our own.
Our Gospel passage for today is the passage assigned for Trinity Sunday because it makes the Trinitarian formula — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — explicit, but the context of that trinitarian formula is what makes this a powerful message for us here today. “Go therefore” says Jesus “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Jesus is telling his followers to bear Christian witness — to go out and tell the truth.
Just about every day brings some new piece of news that makes our world look less stable and less secure than ever. The world needs authentic Christian witness more than ever, and we need to be truthful to ourselves and others about what is happening in the world in order to bear that witness. We also need to be truthful about God. In the short term, it may be easier to ignore what is happening and pretend none of it matters. In the short term, it may be easier to tell ourselves that God is something “less than”, to pretend that God is small enough for us to understand and utilize as needed. The powers that be tempt us to be numb to the needs of others and numb to God’s love. But in the long term, to serve in the world as faithful disciples and to teach others about the God of love, and to have a chance at restoring the stability and security we are lacking, we must open our eyes to see clearly the realities of the world and open our hearts and minds to God through prayer and study. Then we can shake off the temptation to numbness and be honest both about what the world is like and about who God is.
God is love — a “fountain fullness of love” in the words of St. Bonaventure. (Rohr, The Divine Dance, p. 430 How do we respond to a fountain fullness of love? Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22: 37b-39) We respond to God’s love by sharing love.
Our job in these difficult days is the same as the job of Christians in every age: to bear witness to the fullness of God’s love in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska June 11, 2017