Posts Tagged ‘power’

It’s a Miracle. Or Not.

// August 9th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

As promised, we’re done with the Apostle Paul for a bit.  I hope that we have gained a more generous view of Paul that acknowledges his deep love for a gospel of justice and peace even where his writing can, at times, be problematic.  Now we’re going back to the Gospels, so more stories and less jibber-jabber.  Specifically, we are going to follow along with Matthew for a few weeks until we begin beatifying some dead people in anticipation of All Saints Day.  We’re still a little bit off the lectionary, so I’d like to step back to last week’s Gospel passage, Matthew 14.13-21, the story of the feeding of the five thousand.

When we step back into the stories of Jesus, we are confronted with incredible tales, so incredible that they are hard for the modern mind to believe.  In this week’s story, Jesus feeds five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish.  We know this is not possible.

This leaves us with a few options.  We can accept the impossible and call it faith.  We can dismiss it entirely and write off the whole Christian project as a lie.  We can posit a story behind the story, wherein everyone shared or sacrificed or added to what was provided to make sure everyone got what they really needed.  Or we can look to the meaning behind the story without worrying about whether it is literally-factually true.

Even if we assume, as many modern readers in the wake of Joseph Campbell do, that the meaning is the critical point, we still have to decipher what the meaning is.  The common understanding is that these stories show us Jesus’ divinity; that is their purpose.  Only God could do such things.  That may be true of the author’s agenda.  If we study the Gospel of John, that is certainly the point; Matthew may hold that as well.  However, if we focus on that point, we have a single item to which we must assent, requiring little commitment or transformation.  More importantly, we miss the very content of these acts of power that should define our lives as Christians: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing people from the bondage of the fearful voices in their heads.  These are works of power, truly.  We may not be able to speak a word and have it done, but that does not absolve us from the task.

Too often, we assume that, because we do not have the miraculous, mind-bending power portrayed in the stories of Jesus, we have no power at all.  It seems to me that it is far better to refuse to believe in miracles than to refuse to believe that we can change the world.  Indeed, if we have faith like a mustard seed, we can move mountains; we can change the very landscape of our world.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, for a conversation about works of power.  Where is our power as Christians centered?  What is our response to that power?  See you there!

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Ship of Fools: Stewardship

// July 27th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

One of the reasons we are doing this series – and perhaps the reason Church in the Cliff exists – is that there is a tremendous amount of skepticism about the Church.  Scandals have eroded the sense that the Church is worthy of one’s time, treasure, or talents.  The good that churches do is often done better by other groups, which leaves self-preservation as a church’s only purpose.  When we use churchy words like the -ship words, it marks us as church people and church people probably just want something from you.  That’s what “stewardship” means, right?  Give us money!  In return, we will inch our giant thermometer up a notch or put your name on a brick.

Of course, we are told that stewardship is not just giving money, but caring for the things we have been given. That’s a nice and helpful way to look at it.  It asks us to be kind and responsible.  It encourages us to be mindful and thankful for what we have.  It opens up space for ecological concerns.  All good stuff.  Sadly, that view must be extracted from a text that appears to have other ideas.

There are several words in both Greek and Hebrew that are translated as “steward.”  Their meanings range from “prince” to “butler,” which tells us something critical about the biblical witness.  A steward is to care for stuff, but he (yes, overwhelmingly a he) does so within the context of what is known as a “client-patron” relationship.  That is, he both rules and serves.  He rules over things and people on behalf of someone else, on behalf of the real owner of the things and people.  Ultimately, everything is ruled and owned by one person: the king.  So the steward is sandwiched in a power relationship where he rules over others, but he, in turn, is ruled by someone else.

This might seem to be common sense.  As Bob Dylan says, you gotta serve somebody.  Certainly, the biblical text is embedded in this kind of power relationship and our society is not much different.

But look at what this does to the whole notion of care.  First, it turns the world into a long chain of possessions.  We care for stuff because we own it and we hope to be cared for because we belong to someone else.  Second, we don’t care for others because they are intrinsically valuable or because they are the image of God, but because someone more powerful than us wants us to care for them.  And they do so, mostly, because they provide something.  Value is based on what you give; relationship is merely a method of exchange.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that our relationship with the Church is strained.  The Church too often adopts this model of power.  It promulgates a narrative about human weakness and God’s power and the Church as the caretaker on God’s behalf.  Also, in doing so, the Church adopts signs of power from the world: money, status, political influence, masculinity, normative values.  How can stewardship be anything in that context other than giving, ruling, and using?

Fortunately, there is a thread of Scripture that runs against this.  In the Hebrew Bible, God stands for the slaves and exiles.  God prohibits the early Israelite kings from having an army or a treasury.  There is an ongoing skepticism about power.  And it is written all over the New Testament, too.  We see it in the Great Reversal in Luke.  We see it in Paul’s writings to his brothers and sisters in Christ, a relationship of equals.  We see it in Jesus’ calls for friendship as the ultimate love.  We see it in the Acts of the Apostles where the early church shared all things equally.  And we see it in Jesus, God dying on the cross, giving everything for the sake of those who have been cast aside.  God’s sense of power seems to make power subject to care rather than the reverse.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center as we talk about how power is acquired and what we do with it to care for our world and others.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Undone by Love: The Earth (Program and Sermon)

// July 9th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Genny’s Introduction

The journey of becoming an ecotheologian of sorts began for me through caring about people:  I have a distinct memory from my first semester of coursework at Brite, where I was reading a text by Eleazar Fernandez where he asks the question: What does it mean to have hearts as large as the world?  I was already a nature-lover, beginning gardener, runner and hiker, but I hadn’t yet made the connections between the things that I found enjoyable in my personal life and in my professional life.  That started to shift for me through a couple of different things: as a pastoral counselor, I began to notice how deeply things in people’s physical environment affect their sense of happiness, as well as their health.  As a hospital chaplain, my long-term patients (especially the CF kids who were in a really tightly controlled indoor environment), talked about how much they missed being able to go outside – and on the rare occasions where Dallas air quality was good enough to allow this, they came back with joy on their faces…and many times got better faster.

I began to look at the ways our tradition invites us to relate to the world that sustains our lives – and found a really mixed heritage, both in our sacred texts and in the theologies that have developed our relationship with creation. A really common interpretation you’ve probably heard of takes the genesis passage that talks about “dominion” and reduces that to the right to use and control the earths resources to the benefit of humankind alone.  This is a real challenge for us, I think: we live in a culture that fits this kind of model to a t: it’s a culture of individual happiness and material gratification, so its really comfortable to look at the earth as an object and tool for us to use so we can be happy.

There are two things that might help us pick through this today:

1) Playing out this scenario with 7 billion other people on the planet: what happens?  We end up storing up lots of earth’s resources and making lots of waste in some parts of the globe (like ours), and others are left with fewer resources and dealing with the waste that gets created (like most of our electronic waste, which is shipped across the world to dump and salvage operations, in which children are exposed to toxic chemicals as they try to make enough living to survive.

2) I think this is not a very rich or respectful way of looking at how God calls us to relate to the rest of the world, the “otherkind” of creation – many other stories can help us live a little more thoughtfully with our traditions.  Larry Troester, a GreenFaith Scholar in Residence and Conservative Jewish rabbi in NYC, offers us three models from the Hebrew bible that help us cast our relationship with creation in more complex ways.  Caretaker (Psalm 8 – praising God for creation and for making people “masters” of it), Farmer (Gen. 2.4b-7, 15) creation story – placed in a garden to keep and till it – reciprocal relation), Citizen (Psalm 148 among others: litanies of creation offer praise – all are citizens of creation that offer praise to the divine), & Creature (Eccl. 3.17-21 – we all return to the dust).

The interesting thing to note about these models is that even at their most anthropocentric, we are still to play a responsible and caring role with regard to the creation, because it is ultimate God’s and part of God’s activity in the world.

The creation isn’t a passive resource, but an active subject with whom we are in relationship: how does this change our engagement with it?  Are there ways you are already doing this in your life?  What was a meaningful time you felt like you were relating to the creation? How would you like your relationship/our relationship as a culture to creation to be different?

Scott’s Conclusion

Our understanding of God as the tip-top of a system of power begins at the very beginning.  In Genesis 1, we commonly read: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

As is often the case, some things get lost in translation.  First, we often think that the earth is nothing here, but that is not the case.  The Hebrew, tohu vavohu, is often used to describe a wasteland left in the wake of a calamity.  It is definitely a something.  Second, the wind does not merely sweep over the face of it.  It actually hovers, like a mother bird feeding her young.    And third, when God says, “Let there be light!” – well, this is where it gets really word-nerdy, but hang with me.  The form of the verb here is called a jussive.  It expresses the wish, desire, or command of the speaker.  When a king says something with a jussive, it is usually translated as a command.  When the subject speaks to the king, it is translated as a supplication.  But why assume that power structure here?  Let’s try reading it a little differently.

God encounters this desolation, the site of calamity and feels compassion for it.  God hovers over it, nurtures it, and speaks to it.  God says, “I wish there were some light in you.  I wish you could be something again.  I wish you could be restored.”  And when God calls out to this broken place, the broken place responds: There is light!

If reality is a chain of command,, then we might as well all just get in line, do what we’re told, and use it all up.  For our own survival, we might want to be careful about how we use it, stretch it out as long as possible, but that’s about us.  As long as we control what is below us and let ourselves be controlled by our betters, things will play out as they should.  When it’s over, it’s over.  It’s all in God’s plan.  It’s just the way things are.

But I believe that the order of reality is relationship.  God sees brokenness, desolation, a place where life cannot be, and changes it.  Restores it.  Heals it.  Makes life possible by speaking to the brokenness of the world.  We’re going to look at a lot of issues in this series and each one can be viewed as simply the way things are.  But, as we discussed last week, God is in the business of the impossible.  The way of the world is not God’s way.  So it may seem impossible that the earth’s resources are enough, that humans can live on the earth without consuming it, that the earth is, in fact, a place for life to live and to thrive.  But God is in the business of the impossible.  As Christians, so are we.  We can speak to the broken places of the world and find some light.  We are small and our resources are few, so let’s start with love.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love the earth that gives so much that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Table Litany (written by Genny)

The central symbols of our communion celebration are bread and wine: fruit of the earth, and gift of the vine.  They are imminent, practical symbols: without eating and drinking, we could not live.  Without sharing these things together, we cannot live fully.

In our prayers at this table together, may we remember:
Those who planted
Those who harvested
Those who transported
Those who loaded and packed and unpacked
The soil and water that brought these gifts of life to us,
And the animals who made the soil and the plants their homes.
May they all be cared for and renewed, as loved neighbors in the web of life.

Our stories tell us that on the night he was handed over, Jesus shared a meal with his friends.  He took bread, and broke it, sharing it with those he loved, saying, “Take this, and eat it.”

Then he took a cup of wine, and poured it out for his friends, saying, “Take this, and drink it.”

In doing these things together they loved each other more deeply than they had known before.

Hoping for a world where we share a table together, celebrating even our differences, sustained by a blessed garden in a circle of abundant life, is faith worth acting upon.  There are places at this table for all: you are invited to come, whether you believe a little, a lot or not.  The table is ready, and we welcome your presence.

Undone by Love: The Earth

// July 7th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

It seems that as I think about this series more and more, I keep circling back to the question asked in the Luke 10 version of the greatest commandment story: “Who is my neighbor?”  It’s a reasonable question.  If we are to love our neighbor, surely we should know who that is.  The answer, presented in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is, “The one who showed mercy.”  If we really think about it, who shows more mercy than the vast expanse of creation on which we depend?

So often, we think of the earth as an object, a resource for our use.  There is strong biblical warrant for this, as there is for most power structures.  According to one reading of the first creation narrative found in Genesis 1, God, the ultimate power, has delegated to humans power over every living thing.  But maybe there is another way.

What if we instead thought of the earth as a subject to which we relate?  A neighbor who has shown us mercy?  A neighbor who we might love?  How might that change the choices we make and the kind of justice we work for?

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as our friend Genny Rowley joins us to talk about the earth as neighbor and friend.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

Genny Rowley is currently a doctoral student in the dissertation phase of Brite Divinty School’s Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care program.  Her project involves connecting with people of faith who are working for ecological justice in their local congregations.

Series Schedule

July 1 – Introduction
How can love deconstruct power and create justice?
July 8 – The Earth
How do we relate to the earth and how does that frame our relationship with everything else?  How (and why) do we divide it up and fight over it?
July 15 – The Alien
How do we relate to the people “over there,” especially when they come “over here”?
July 22 – The Neighbor
How do we relate to the people all around us?  Who do we consider to be our neighbor and why?
July 29 – The Other
How do we divide ourselves from the people closest to us, in our families and our friendships?  How do we decide who is “the other”?  And do we have to?
August 5 – Decisions
As a church, how and where do we direct the resources that we have to create a more just world?

Undone by Love (Program and Sermon)

// July 1st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Sermon

Every so often, someone comes forward with proclamations of doom for America.  Whether it’s Carle Zimmerman in 1947, Francis Schaeffer in 1975, or William Bennett in 2003, they see themselves as prophets pointing us back to an ideal time that has passed us by, an ideal place we seem unable to still find.  We have lost our way, our moral compass.  The problem, as Schaeffer puts it, is that we have placed value in the ephemeral, the impermanent, instead of the absolute.  They look back to something that never existed.  Any claim to an absolute is just the claimant making themselves into the absolute.  Of course, they never say, “You know who has really made a mess of things?  Men.  The rich.  White people.  The straights.”  No, the threat always comes from somewhere else.  It’s the feminists who desperately want more teen mothers.  All the non-white people are lazy and breeding at an alarming rate.  The greedy poor are jealous of what others have achieved through hard work.  I’m not sure what the gays are doing, but I’m sure it’s icky – and dangerous!  Any perspective from the margins threatens these moralists’ world.  These postmodern approaches destabilize a society that works very well for some people.

We have been accused of being a deconstructive church and that has produced some anxiety about the possibility of building something.  What do we have to offer other than critique?  What is our bottom line?  Do the questions ever end?  But we have suffered from the same misunderstanding, often self-inflicted, that has plagued Derrida and other postmodern thinkers.  It is commonly thought that deconstruction is nihilistic, Nietzsche’s horrific abyss left in the wake of God’s death.  I would suggest to those critics that they should actually read Derrida.  I haven’t read much, but it doesn’t take much to realize that is not the objective.

All deconstruction suggests is that the things we take for granted about the way the world is organized – race, class, gender, disability, etc. – are all constructed.  That is, things like race don’t really exist except as ways to categorize people.  That’s why Wanda Sykes jokes about how Tiger Woods got less black the more success he had.  It’s not that people don’t have different skin color or different biology or different amounts of wealth.  It’s just that we have decided that those things matter in particular ways.  They matter because of the value we attach to them.  And because we attach value to them, some people benefit and some people are harmed merely by being on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.

What deconstruction suggests is that, because these things are constructed, they can be deconstructed.  We can take them apart and see how they work.  We can ask who wins and who loses by constructing things the way we do.  Thus, contrary to the claims of the naysayers looking for absolutes, deconstruction is primarily ethical.  As Grace Jantzen says of the abyss as represented in Hadewijch’s writings, if the abyss is the site of all possibility, a natal space, “then we could hardly imagine that all attitudes and actions are equally relative, that nourishment and care do not count for more than contempt or cruelty.”  Deconstruction is certainly a playful adventure and one without a clear end, but it is far from immoral.  Good is always good for, and deconstruction asks, “Who is this good for?”

I submit that we see the same deconstructive posture in the law.  Our passage from Deuteronomy is an account of the time just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, though written very much after the fact, a retelling of the Exodus narrative from the perspective of the exiles.  As the Deuteronomist tells it, they had not had a ruler up to then, but God knows that they will ask for one.  So God says, “Sure you can have a ruler, but only with some conditions.”  First, the ruler cannot acquire horses, which means there will be no army.  Second, the ruler cannot acquire a lot of wives.  Wives of rulers at that time were essentially treaties, so this ruler cannot negotiate relationships with other nations.  And finally, the ruler cannot hoard money.  This is really everything a ruler did at that time: make war, make treaties, and rake in the cash.  The Israelite ruler would have none of it.  Instead, the ruler was to read the law all the time and keep its statutes, never placing him- or herself above the rest of the people.  If the ruler can rule in this way, he or she would rule for a long time.  To properly rule is not to rule.  To properly rule is to be equal to everyone else, struggling to live with one another.  To properly rule is to be powerless.  The purpose of the law, then, is not to give power, but to construct a society around an ethic of love, a society of justice.

Just before Jesus came on the scene, the chief religious leader in Jerusalem was Rabbi Hillel.  Hillel had frequent disagreements with Rabbi Shammai, which are recorded in the Talmud.  Their disagreements were over interpretations of the law.  Hillel’s were typically more liberal, looking at the law as grounded in a principle, whereas Shammai was more conservative, demanding strict adherence to the statutes.  There is a story, often told, of a Gentile who wanted to understand the Jewish law, so he posed the same challenge to Shammai and Hillel: “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.”  Shammai told him to go away and slammed the door in his face.  Hillel said, “Certainly!  That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is commentary.”  It’s not that the Torah and its statutes didn’t matter – he advised the Gentile to study the commentary if he really wanted to understand – but without a principle of concern for your neighbor, it is meaningless, useless.

As static statute, the law becomes a system of power that oppresses.  At the time of Hillel, the temple cult held the most power within Jewish society and it was oriented entirely around strict adherence to the law and the sacrificial system of atonement.  Though history has not been kind to Shammai, always playing the foil for Hillel, he seemed to be winning in the year 0.  If you’re poor, you must have sinned and need a sacrifice.  But if you’re poor, you have no money to buy a sacrifice.  And if you take a day off work to travel to Jerusalem, you get even poorer.  You can go into debt.  There are people at the temple who will loan you money, but you can probably never pay it back.  So then you become a debt slave and lose whatever meager property you had.  It’s not that different today, by the way, but we’ll talk more about that in a couple of weeks.  The promise of a just society is not only not fulfilled, but it is turned on its head.  This is the world in which Jesus finds himself.

The law is a system of oppression that Jesus sets out to deconstruct.  Jesus’ words reported by Matthew curiously echo those of Hillel: “’You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ That is the greatest and first commandment.  The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments, the whole Law is based – and the Prophets as well.”  Everything the law is intended to be is expressed by love of God and love of neighbor.  If the law or its application does not do either of those things, it is not the law.  Feeding and healing people on the Sabbath is not a violation of the law.  As Jesus says in Matthew 5:17: “I have come not to abolish (the law), but to fulfill (it)!”

Love deconstructs power.  Love asks, “Who is this good for?”  If you’re a privileged, straight, white male, you can bet your absolute will be good for privileged, straight, white men.  We – and I say “we” because I certainly have benefited from this – built a system of slavery and segregation; of monogamous, heterosexual marriage with clearly defined gender roles; of hyper-masculinity; and we made sure that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  Who is this good for?  Jesus announces in Luke that he is bringing good news for the poor.  Would Jesus even recognize those who claim his name today?  Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, makes me think otherwise.

Conversation

Would Jesus recognize us?  Who do we have good news for?  Who do we love?  Ourselves?  Each other?  What systems of power are we willing to take apart?  And how do we go about doing that?

Closing

In our series on John’s church, we learned about how love, friendship and oneness require equality and mutuality to reveal ourselves to each other.  It is often thought that, in the real world, such relationships are impossible.  Derrida says that deconstruction is “the experience of the impossible.”  I would argue that’s a pretty good definition of life in God and life in love.  As my professor, Dr. Theo Walker is fond of pointing out, there was a time when people thought that the abolition of slavery was impossible, that it simply was the way the world functioned. It’s just crazy to think otherwise.  And it was, for thousands of years.  But then someone – a Christian, in fact – thought otherwise. Bartolome de las Casas, the author of the phrase “human rights,” saw the Indians of the New World as friends and knew he could not hold power over them.  It took about 300 years, but now no one can imagine a world in which slavery would be okay.  Out of love, de las Casas deconstructed the way of the world.

Now our struggles are different, but somehow the same.  Slavery has ended, but discrimination, poverty, sexism, homophobia – evils too numerous to mention – are thought to be the way the world works.  We must have poor people.  Men and women are just inherently different.  There just isn’t enough in the world.  We are told that the things that plague our world are impossible to fix, a part of the nature of reality.  But love asks us – God asks us – to experience the impossible.  In the remainder of this series, we will talk about what that means for us as individuals and as a church.