Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Who do you say that I am?"

(This sermon is inspired, in no small part, by David Lose's awesome weekly gift to preachers, "Dear Partner in Preaching" found on his " the Meantime" blog.  Lose created and wrote "Dear Working Preacher" while he was at Luther Seminary.)

It is arguably the most important question for us to answer, whether we are 1st, or 21st century Christians:

Who do you say that I am?

"(Jesus) is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

This was Peter’s answer in Matthew’s Gospel.  And here, they get high marks from Jesus.

But what do these words really mean for Peter, the Gospel writer, and those who read them? 

That isn't necessarily clear...

We have certainly tried to explain them.  We have this big Creed that we say every week together:  words that have been worked over by important people in the Church’s history.

These words are well and good for our weekly ritual, in part because they encompass so many possibilities in their potential understanding.  Perhaps they do indeed best explain who Jesus is.

But even if we use Peter’s short version:  “You are the Messiah:  the Son of the Living God”,
What do we really mean with these words?  How would we describe what they mean?

Who do you say that I am?

…another way of saying that, is this:
What do you believe about Jesus?

If I was required to avoid theological language:  if I was not allowed to use any words that required further explanation, I’d make these two statements about Jesus:

—-In Jesus, I see God’s love for the world.

—-In Jesus, I see what is possible through God.

David Lose essentially said the same thing, but in a more classically preacher sort of way…as he self-admits...with “lots of words”.  He wrote:

“I think Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves us and all people. God is so big that I think we have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. In this sense, Jesus revealed God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer depression and think seriously about ending their lives, a heart that is upset and angry when a young black man is shot dead for no explicable reason, a heart that is torn up in grief at the desperate situation and violence that rips apart the land we’ve named Holy, a heart that loves us like only an adoring parent can and so not only wants the best for us but is always eager to welcome us home in grace, forgiveness, and love. 
But it’s more than that, too. I think Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. And so rather than give into the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender people to demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love wins.”

I think David’s words are extremely well said.  But the question, again, is not what some theologian, your priest, or even what The Church or The Bible says about Jesus.…

It’s Jesus saying to you:  “Who do you say that I am?”

What do you believe about Jesus?

If you use Biblical words like Messiah…or theological claims like “Son of God”…or other deep metaphorical language...that’s fine.

But if you're using those kind of words...layered with generations of symbolism...what do you really understand them to mean???  How would you explain your answer to those with no concept or history of these words?

What do you believe about Jesus?

So, here’s your challenge. 

Come up with a sentence or two that describes what you honestly believe about Jesus.

Then use those words…your confession…to shape the way you live your life in the days that follow.

Be honest with yourself, even if it doesn’t exactly match what Peter says, or what we say in the Creed.

But take heart, and be kind with yourself as well....

This isn't a test you can pass or fail.

And Jesus doesn't ask the question for his sake:  seeking praise of him or God.

Instead, the words you come up with have the power to continually transform your life, and those around you.  As Lose wrote, your words "...are ones of power that will help root us in the love and possibility that Jesus offers." 

“Who do you say that I am?”

What do you believe about Jesus?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tragic news of Robin Williams’ death

I came home from the movies last night, unaware of the news that Robin Williams had taken his own life.  There are a number of news reports (and more will follow) about his challenges with addiction and depression:  and it is my sincere hope that it will raise awareness, and people will seek and find help in their own lives.

Williams is often thought of primarily for his remarkable manic and rapid-fire comic style, but is career is filled with movies that are fertile grounds for the intersection of pop culture, religion, and ethics.  Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King are two that I’ve led conversations on, but Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam, and the obvious What Dreams May Come would also work quite well.

Good Morning Vietnam, to me, is actually still underrated because Williams' historical (and hysterical) monologues tend to dominate our memories.  But in addition to lots of laughs, the movie was a striking look at Vietnam, and explored how wars were censored (no “real news” allowed, less people might be reminded that there was a “conflict” going on), relationships were challenged, and real heartbreak in the midst of a war zone.  The use of Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, set with the images of the war, is among the most powerful use of a classic song in a movie (and forever challenged and changed the way I heard the song).  I am always struck at how I'm laughing throughout the closing words, when all of a sudden, I find myself crying.

Dead Poets Society is most likely my favorite Williams movie.  The movie challenged the point of education (create rule followers, or people who will think for themselves).  It brilliantly used Walt Whitman and other classic poets to connect with the promise and passion of life, the message to “seize the day”, and “contribute your verse”.

The contrast of the two leading students and roommates, the outgoing, passionate Neil, and the quiet and reserved Todd, was central to the story.  Williams chemistry (as Professor Keating) with the young actors was essential to showing their character's growth as human beings.  As Todd was pulled out of his shell by Keating and Neil, Williams shows just the perfect amount of subtle worry that Neil is not be honest with his father.

And of course, Neil isn’t.  And it leads to his suicide.

The actor Kurtwood Smith (in a phenomenal performance) is the kind of strict unyielding father you love to hate in movies.  But every heart breaks when he cries out “Neil!!!  Neil!!!  Oh my God!!!  Oh, my son!!!” 

The cascade of profound loss and consequence the suicide has in the film is so real and immense.

I can’t help but lament that Williams could not remember the power and message of this movie, and that he wasn’t able to translate it to the profound loss people now have over his suicide.  Depression is a powerful force that can isolate the strongest of people.  

O ME! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; 
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish; 
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?) 
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d; 
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined; 
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? 
That you are here—that life exists, and identity; 
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.  
---Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I trust that Williams is at peace with God, as I pray for his family and friends who now mourn and find ways to carry on.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:  No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

More on “Black Jesus”, and the power and problem of

A regular weekly addition to my inbox is a email tailored to my interests:  sign someone’s petition against someone else’s outrageous behavior., along with other groups that use email and social media to gain signatures, have an instant way to gather like-minded individuals, and with a quick few clicks, can collect and distribute signatures in a way that was not possible before.  I’ve signed plenty of petitions, along with others as well.  I can say, without a doubt, that some of these petitions have had positive results in righting wrongs.

The potential problem with such emails is that they are always framed as clear.  

Petition emails are almost never presented as open for dialogue or conversation.  Instead, it it “here are the facts*, here is what those people have done or said**, here’s the place for you to be against them.”  *(may not actually be "facts")  **(may be taken out of context)

Consider the “Black Jesus” boycott from my last post, and presently found on  Imagine if you don’t know anything about the show, and haven’t watched the trailer, and you suddenly receive this email:

Cancel “Black Jesus” TV Show
This is blasphemy and an insult to all believers of Jesus Christ. This TV show has twisted the words of our Lord to make a mockery of him and simply can't be tolerated. This show is also racist and degrading to the black community. 
If you believe in the power of God, Please take 2 minutes to sign this petition and remove this blasphemy off our tv shows.

or perhaps…

REMOVE television show "Black Jesus" from the Airwaves
Cartoon Network and Adult Swim have opted to desecrate and openly MOCK Jesus Christ with their upcoming television show, Black Jesus. It is a complete disrespect to the name, character, and faith in Jesus Christ. It should NEVER make the airwaves and our petition is to have Cartoon Network remove this show from the airwaves. 

Each of these emails provide the trailer of the show for you to watch.

If you don’t accept these descriptions at face value, you might choose to watch the trailer. The problem is, the context for watching the trailer is “twisted the words of our Lord to make a mockery of him”, and “racist and degrading to the black community”.  Those are tough charges for a 2 to 3 minute video to overcome.  And if you don’t know that the creator of the show is Aaron McGruder, the African American satirist and The Boondocks creator, one might assume that, at best, this show is solely an attempt for cheap laughs built on racial and religious stereotypes.  

It might actually indeed be that:  I can’t tell just from a trailer that pulls scenes out of context to provide interest in the show. 

Consider what McGruder wrote a few months ago, as he stepped away from The Boondocks television show:

What has never been lost on me is the enormous responsibility that came with The Boondocks – particularly the television show and it’s relatively young audience. It was important to offend, but equally important to offend for the right reasons. For three seasons I personally navigated this show through the minefields of controversy. It was not perfect. And it definitely was not quick. But it was always done with a keen sense of duty, history, culture, and love. Anything less would have been simply unacceptable.

That’s his well articulated quest as an artist.  Guess what he said next:

As for me, I’m finally putting a life of controversy and troublemaking behind me with my upcoming Adult Swim show, BLACK JESUS.

Heh:  right…there’s the satirist.

Aziza Jackson writes on the culture behind why “You can’t talk about Jesus unless it’s in a love song, or as Christians call it, gospel music. His name is to be exalted and revered. Anything else is blasphemy.”:

All of this makes it easy to see that, although “Black Jesus” is a satirical television show and not a documentary on the life and works of Jesus Christ, this makes no difference to many conservative black Christians who find even the concept behind it to be fundamentally offensive. The reason this implacable point of view is embedded in complex layers upon layers of black history, culture, identity, and spirituality that this article has not even begun to scratch the surface of. 
McGruder knows this, and is using every one of these complex layers as material for the show, turning it into both a mirror on the culture and a reflective tool in order for society to see its true self, just like he did with “The Boondocks.” Only this time, it’s black Christians’ turn to see themselves reflected in it.

Now that I’ve read what I’ve read, I would be surprised if “Black Jesus” is primarily about laughs (no matter what the trailer excerpts).  The show may ultimately disappoint (and almost certainly will offend many).  There’s only one way to find out…

BTW:  Marcus Halley, in response to those who read his comment on the UBE website, has now written a blog post on the subject.  It is really well done!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

“Black Jesus”: On calls to boycott movies or TV programs

In general, I’m extremely reluctant to embrace any call to boycott a movie or TV series without first watching the film or series.   I’ve had that policy in general, even if I’m pretty sure that I will be on the side of those boycotting.  I forced myself to go see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in part because so many people had condemned movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma, (or even Harry Potter) without ever seeing for themselves.   If I’m going to condemn a movie or TV show, I feel obligated to do so from first hand experience.  And even then, I usually prefer active conversation about the movie or series, rather than an outright boycott.

There are some exceptions.  Reality TV show controversies often occur because of what the participants say in real life (consider Duck Dynasty):  I don’t have to see the show in that case to react to the actors words or actions.  I totally respect Doon MacKichan’s call to boycott shows that have “…storylines that use violence against women as entertainment.”  And I actively asked on my blog if I had to go see God's Not Dead in order to be critical of it (I chose not to see it).

“Black Jesus” is a real quandary.  I just heard of the show, thanks to a Huffington Post article covered by Episcopal Cafe.  While I expected right wing groups to voice vocal dissent (just as they did with the SNL sketch DJesus Uncrossed), I was surprised to see this statement from The Union of Black Episcopalians:

CALL TO ACTION: Cancel "Black Jesus" - "Black Jesus," is a comedy show slated to premiere, on August 7, on the Cartoon Network during its child-unfriendly late-night spot, which they call Adult Swim. (Cartoon Network is owned by Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN.) 
As Christians and Americans of African descent, the Union of Black Episcopalians, finds the trailer for this show to be very offensive, religiously and racially denigrating; and regardless of the audience to which it may be intended we do not see ANY redeeming or affirming qualities. 
It denigrates Jesus, the faith AND our race and we take responsibility for our own request that this show be cancelled and not aired on the Cartoon Network or other outlets. We ask our members and supporters to join with us in making their voices heard through signing on to the petition at: or taking other direct action.

I have complete respect and admiration for this group, so I take their claim seriously.  One Facebook reply from Marcus Halley (an Episcopal priest), however, is very sound:

I will say this, as a person familiar with Aaron McGruder's work. He's a satirist, one who uses humor to raise some problematic or troubling paradigms to the forefront. The Black Community needs to engage very seriously our understanding of Jesus because there are some truly toxic theologies out there that are not liberating and salvific in the least - theologies that only reify slavocracy and disempowerment instead of reinterpreting the liberation theology proffered by Absalom Jones, Jarena Lee, Alexander Crummell, James Cone, Jacqueline Grant, and more. Satire may not be the tool the church wants, but it's a tool the church can use to start the conversation. Black Jesus is not a problem to be stopped, but an opportunity to be engaged. 
Instead of the Church advocating censorship (which violates Amendment 1 of the U.S. constitution as this does not present a "clear and present danger" to anything except our ostensible hegemony on Christological God-talk), what if we engaged the conversations that will be raised by "Black Jesus"? What if we allowed our own interpretations of Jesus to be challenged and thereby create opportunities for growth? What if we created spaces for the world to dialogue about the situations raised by Black Jesus instead of ending the conversation before it even begins? 
The Church cannot be threatened by this type of public discourse? It's happening out in our communities and if we want to reach this generation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, perhaps our call is to enter the conversation, to find new and innovative ways of getting our message heard as broadly as "Black Jesus," and to be the truly welcome, open, and affirming Church that we are. 
If we're going to protest anything, let's protest the movies that come out of Hollywood or the miniseries that come on the "History" channel that write Black people out of a history we know we are in. Let's do that instead of being threatened by he work of a satirist whose very work is meant to challenge and offend, but in the end raise interesting points of engagement.

McGruder has been controversial on numerous occasions both for what happens in his comic strip/TV show The Boondocks, and for public statements he has made (see his Wikipedia page, to start).  But I can also say personally that The Boondocks’ comic strip has had profound moments of insight into American culture, and has raised or commented on important contemporary issues.

Watching the trailer (the sole evidence for boycotting the show), it’s hard for me to see clearly what the overarching message of the show will be:  especially with McGruder's satirical history.  While I’m not anxiously awaiting it’s premier, I’m more inclined to side with Halley’s point:  the Church might be better entering the conversation, rather than boycotting it.

UPDATE:  I wrote more the next day about this as well.