Friday, March 29, 2013

An Angry God Demands a Blood Sacrifice?

     The language of the Book of Common Prayer draws the scene of the crucifixion in crimson: “O Savior of the world, who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us: Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.”  In trying to make sense of this God experience the disciples of the first century had gone through, explaining what happened to Jesus as a blood sacrifice made perfect sense.  They had lived their lives in the shadow of the blood sacrifices in the Temple on the mount in Jerusalem.  Countless animals had their blood spilled, all in an attempt to expiate their sins.  So, naturally, in sharing the message of what Jesus did for us, they turned to what everyone knew — blood atonement.

     That message is harder for us to understand in our day.  As we listen to Jesus’s commandment to love one another in the establishment of the Lord’s Supper; as we come to understand that God’s nature is love; it becomes impossible to explain away the demand of an angry God for his own son’s blood before he could forgive us.  If we understand that Scripture is not so much the final explanation for everything, as an account… a journal… of a people’s walk with God, then we understand they were doing the best they could to try and explain what they had lived and how they saw the face of God in the face of Jesus.  Today, we must try to explain our own walk with God in our own words.

     Part of every elementary school experiences learning to walk in line: you have to walk in line down to the cafeteria; you have to line up for fire drills; you have to stay in your line so you don’t run into other classes coming the opposite way in the hall.  I had a student one year just wouldn’t do it.  He was always showing off, out of line, being the class clown.  One day, we were going down to an assembly, and he was walking backwards with high steps causing his friends to laugh.  I could see clearly he was heading for a wall.  Now, he wasn’t going very fast, so I knew he wasn’t going to hurt himself, but after getting on him again and again, I decided it was time just to let natural consequences take over.  Sure enough, he walked right into the wall.  He was pretty startled, and I went over and asked, “You OK?”  He was… and he also never did that again.

     Although I knew where his choices were leading him, I didn’t cause that boy to walk into the wall.  The fact that we can see where people’s choices are going to end up isn’t the same as causing those consequences.  God and Jesus both knew where Jesus’ choices were leading him.  Living the kind of life he lived — breaking down social barriers, calling religious and civil authorities to account, defying the dog-eat-dog wisdom of his day — Jesus’ life led inexorably to the cross.  His life could end no other way.

     We have seen this in the lives of others: in retrospect, it now seems inevitable that Dr. Martin Luther King’s life of proclaiming the equal humanity of all would be ended by a bullet; it seems inevitable that Oscar Romero, who lived his life preaching justice for the poor and challenging the regime of his country, would be assassinated by his own government as he celebrated the Eucharist.  The God of Love wept as Oscar Romero’s blood mingled with the wine of the Communion.  The God of Love wept as Dr. Martin Luther King was struck down.  And I believe, our God who is love wept as Jesus hung on the cross.  God did not demand Jesus’ blood, but he knew where his life was leading… in a sense, there was no other way.

     We walk in the way of the cross, but more accurately, we walk in the way of Jesus’ life… one lived in such a way that it led to complete and utter self-sacrifice.

Walking through the Fear

     I was afraid of flying to Hawaii over the Pacific.  I had flown before, but I just couldn’t seem to get the fear of flying over all that water out of my mind.  At first, I tried the intellectual approach.  I looked up plane safety on the Internet.  I understood that I was far safer in an airplane than I was in my own car driving in my hometown, but I was still afraid.  I talked to a coworker, Paul, about it.  His helpful advice was, “Hey Rick, if you hit water going 580 mph, you’re just as dead as if you hit the side of a mountain.”  Cheerful. 

     So, the intellectual approach didn't do it for me.  I was still afraid.  I decided instead to trust another human being... the flight attendant.  I figured if she didn’t look worried, with all her experience flying, I shouldn’t be worried either.  Friends on the flight with me noticed how calm I was, even though I had been afraid earlier, and asked me about it.  I explained my thinking.  So I was doing just fine until we hit a little bit of turbulence, and the flight attendant who was walking by dropped to her knees and grabbed both arms of the seats on either side of the aisle and exclaimed, “Oh, my God!”  No, there wasn't a real emergency… my friends had gotten her to prank me.  She reassured me immediately, but I don’t think my heart stopped pounding the rest of the way.  It’s good to have friends.  You know what finally got me over my fear of flying over the ocean?   Nothing really... only getting to Maui.

     It's the last week Jesus's life, and as the Psalmist said, "fear is all around." The disciples are terrified: They are afraid of being in Jerusalem. They are terrified of the religious and government leaders. They are even frightened by the one they love most, Jesus, as he repeatedly predicts his own death. And nothing is working to get rid of that fear.  They tried to think their way out of it… to understand what Jesus meant.  But it didn't work any better than me trying to think my way out of being afraid of flying over the Pacific Ocean.  And it got even worse when Jesus established what we call the Lord's Supper.  He predicted the person who would betray him would be one of them.  Now the trust the disciples had put into other human beings crumbled… the man they loved has told him he's going to die in a short time, and now, they can't even trust each other.  Just like when I lost my trust in that lovely flight attendant over the Pacific Ocean, the disciples had all of their trust of other human beings ripped away.

     Fear makes you do stupid things.  Before supper, Jesus had given them an example of humility, by kneeling before them — even before Judas Iscariot — and washing their feet.  But the disciples are so afraid, what did they do in response?  They got into an argument about who was the greatest among them, and Jesus had to pull them up short by saying that Satan had demanded to sift every one of them like wheat.  In another gospel, he predicted all of them would abandon him that very night.  So what's the connection between fear and the kind of pride and arrogance the disciples displayed that night?  In what way is pride a type of fear? 

     Part of every healthy personality is having a bit of pride — pride in our abilities, in our health, knowing our gifts, etc.  But unhealthy pride is a protection against losing face or position — fear that someone will take advantage of us; fear that somehow we will get hurt… that someone else will get ahead of us.  What Jesus was showing his disciples, and what he challenges us as Christian to do today, is absolutely radical.  It’s natural to recoil from what we are afraid of.  But Jesus asks us to walk through the fear until we lose our human pride that so insulates us from one another.  Jesus calls us to be vulnerable, be willing to be hurt, be willing to be taken advantage of, be willing to lose our place of privilege — all in the service of others.

     It wouldn't have done much good to say to the disciples, "Just don't be afraid."  The only way out was for them to walk through the fear.  They had to walk through the garden.  They had to walk through the trial.  They had to walk through the crucifixion.  They had to keep walking, even when fear choked the very air they breathed.
This week we walk alongside them.  We walk through Maundy Thursday and remember our Lord's humility.  We walk through Good Friday and breathe in the fear of the crucifixion.  You know, I did get to Maui, and at night under a full moon I sat on warm black volcanic sand and listened to the gentle ocean waves lap on the shore, and gazed out at the beauty of the island of Lanai in the distance to my left and Molokai to my right.  The only thing that got the disciples over their fear was, walking through it, until they were finally sitting on the bright warm shores of Easter… then… then it was all worth it.  At the end of all the fear, there's hope, there's resurrection, there's second chances, there's new life. There's Easter.

     Finally, Saturday night and the Easter Vigil comes.  The new flame shoots up, and we carry a candle lit from it.  By being there, we shout to the whole world that light and love beat out darkness and hatred every time!  Easter day dawns and we celebrate the destruction of fear, and our Lord's great victory over the greatest of all our fears… death.

     It's okay to be afraid in life.  But if Jesus taught us anything by this last week, it is that if we keep walking, surrender our pride, live to serve others… we're going to make it.  An author, Kathleen Norris, wrote: "Fear is not a bad place to start a spiritual journey. If you know what makes you afraid, you can see more clearly that the way out is through the fear."

Friday, March 22, 2013

So, if you're wondering how my sermon prep is going...

     It's messy, but this is the clustering process I go through to write a sermon.   At this stage,  I'm just about ready to start outlining...  really...  I'm not kidding.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Google Reader Alternatives — Just Hold Tight for Now

Eyes, look your last!
 Arms, take your last embrace! and lips, O you
 The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
 A dateless bargain to engrossing death.
— Romeo and Juliet, Act V, scene 3, line 112.

      Arrgh!  They killed Google Reader!  If you are not as big a geek as I, you may not have heard Google is axing its RSS feed service called “Google Reader” in July of this year.  OK, I admit quoting Shakespeare is a bit overly dramatic in this case, but for news junkies like me, this comes as a huge blow.

     What Google Reader allowed you to do is aggregate RSS feeds, i.e., gather in one place, things you wanted to read.  So, I was able to have a category called “Church,” which included the Episcopal News Service, blogs of favorite religious writers, and postings of places like Harvard Divinity in one place.  Under my “News” header, I could look at local news from our one, sad little newspaper plus a local TV station, or switch to national news where I had stories pulled from the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, the New York Times, Atlantic, and Vanity Fair.  Without flipping from one website to another, all of my favorite publications were gathered in one place.  I could scan multiple sources, only pausing to read what interested me.  It kept me well-informed, and was entertaining.  Now, I and many others have to find a good replacement… I haven’t found one.

     The minute I signed in yesterday and saw Google’s calloused announcement that it was terminating Google Reader, I sprang into action looking for an alternative.  The two parameters for my replacement:  I want to be able to read articles on my PC and on my Android Phone.  Although there are a number of Android stand-alone apps for RSS feeds, I don’t like reading everything on my smartphone.  If you’re an Apple person, you can stop reading now since there are dedicated Apple readers out there I didn’t bother to look at.  If, however, you like me are a PC user, read on.

     Wanting this settled quickly, I rashly told my friends I thought NetVibes would be a good replacement for Google Reader.  I'm now publicly withdrawing my endorsement of Netvibes as an alternative to Google Reader.  It works well enough on your PC, but the web-based Android interface is so slow it's unusable.  Maybe it will come out with an Android app in the next three months and I’ll reconsider.

     So, I did some searching, and the reality is there are no good alternatives out there if you use Internet Explorer and want something that works well on an Android phone.  For what it's worth, here is my summary of the other RSS aggregators I've tried in the last two days, and my dealbreakers for each: 
  • Pulse: Useless — Controlled from Android app; you can't import on the web or your PC; ten feeds fills up a category; I have more than that under almost every subject.
  • Feedly: Only works on your PC if you want to switch to Firefox or Chrome; probably a good service, but the work of changing over browsers is crazy-making.  If, however, you’re already on Firefox or Chrome, you might consider it.
  • Taptu: Only allows up to 100 feeds from Google Reader.
  • Fever: Apple only; $30 for service.
  • Newsblur: Only 12 feeds allowed, then you pay (Only 12 feeds? Really?!)
  • The Old Reader: Supposedly like Google Reader, but no Android app.  Sign up and import is easy, but then the message appears: "There are 32460 users in the import queue ahead of you."  It's been about a half hour, and there are still 32,444 ahead of me... this does not bode well.
      So, what to do?  It’s only been two days.  A number of companies are gearing up to replace Google Reader, and I'm just going to sit tight and see what surfaces.  We have about three months to switch.  Keep your eyes open, and I suspect something better than what’s currently out there will be developed.  I shall keep all of my fellow geeks updated.

     You’ll excuse me, now.  I feel another bout of drama kicking in…

Death lies on Google Reader, like an untimely frost
 Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.  
— Adapted from Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, scene 5, line 28.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Haiku Kind of Day

downdraft of snowflakes

small gray wrens huddled for warmth
haiku kind of day