After Borg: How one lecture gave me atonement to believe in

I pulled it off the shelf last night and paged through-- a sort of eulogy, a sort of thanksgiving.

I pulled it off the shelf last night and paged through– a sort of eulogy, a sort of thanksgiving.

There are many voices lifted up this week in thanksgiving for the life and evangelism of scholar Marcus Borg. Perhaps all the stories that need telling have been told. But this one is mine.

The whole long post is now six and a half years old, and is worth the fun reading if you want to hear me riff on why I dislike The Chronicles of Narnia. I will, however, excerpt some highlights here.

My theological problem had always been very simple. I don’t like what most church says about God.

So much of what traditional church teaches is about how we need Jesus and Jesus is so good and loving, because God-as-Creator is so abusive and mean. God-as-Creator made people and gave them free will, and constructed a system of God’s own justice wherein those beautiful ones, created in the divine image, cannot receive forgiveness without blood, suffering, and death.

That’s not a god I could or can believe in, let alone preach.

Sometime in 2007 ish, I attended a lecture in Middlebury, VT at which Marcus Borg spoke. I don’t remember much, and the notes I copiously took are long lost. But I remember his gentleness and conviction. The audience was mostly church people, not scholars– pastors and lay people from a variety of faith traditions. He was speaking a lot about his then-recent book The Heart of Christianity, and about how it could be possible to teach a rich and subtle theology in Christian education, insisting that “regular” church people can and should think deeply about theology.

I know, what a concept. But it was radical to some of his audience, or at least what he was suggesting be the content was radical.

He handled the comments and questions and challenges with grace, and imparted this vision: that we everyday people could think and teach deeply, and that this would bring people closer to God, and deeper into faith. He demonstrated more than once his famous, humble not-knowing.

But what he said about atonement, as so many have said about so much of his writing and teaching, gave me a faith I could hold:

Borg completely re-explains Jesus as the sacrificial lamb in a way that removes substitutionary atonement from the equation, makes for a much more powerful statement of belief, challenges the systems of sin and forgiveness that require sacrifices in the first place, and is historically valid as a bonus.

It goes like this: by the first century, Jewish Temple worship was a well-oiled machine, and it controlled much in the lives of the common Jewish individual. Sin and being unclean were problems not only for the conscience, but for inclusion in the community; a person whose sin had not been forgiven or a person who had been/come in contact with something unclean (so that’s every woman every 28 days, and her husband, most likely) could not be part of ritual, community meals, or have any entrance into the Temple, and thereby entrance into the presence of God and relationship with God. Forgiveness and cleansing of sin/uncleanness required blood sacrifice of certain animals, offered by the priests on behalf of the sinner in the Temple in Jerusalem. So, those Jews who could afford the animals for sacrifices and the fees for the priests and the trips to Jerusalem could have their sins forgiven, could enter the Temple on the High Holy Days, and could stand in the presence of the Almighty. And the rest, well, too bad for them. The Temple priests held a monopoly on sin and forgiveness. They had become the ancient magic, not only demanding the sacrifices, but setting the fees, limitations, and means by which forgiveness and relationship with God were possible. One might say (although Borg did not, but perhaps I can stretch here) that the Temple claimed that they were the way to salvation, that no one could come to God but through them and the expensive sacrifices they required.

The claim, then, that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb is not a claim about the human blood required for the forgiveness of sins– that’s not part of Judeo-Christian theology in antiquity. It is a claim about the ritual sacrifice offered only by the Temple priests. To say that Jesus is the sacrifice, that he died and his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins, is to say that the sacrifices and rituals of the Temple are meaningless. No longer do you need to buy an unblemished calf or travel to Jerusalem or pay the fees for a priest to offer sacrifice on your behalf. Christ is that sacrifice, and the Temple monopoly on forgiveness is no more. Through Jesus, whatever we or others might claim separates us from God has been removed and no further sacrifice is needed. He has, in short, challenged the very authority– that of the Temple– which required blood sacrifice, shattering the barrier between the individual and God’s presence, grace, and abundant life (we see this symbolically as the Temple curtain tears at the moment of the crucifixion; the barrier is destroyed).

… If, as Borg insists, we can re-educate the adults of our churches and educate the children as they come through the Christian Education system with what was really meant by ‘Jesus is the sacrifice for sin,’ we have hope of reclaiming Christ’s radical message: that nothing stands between us and the God of life, and no intercessor is needed to stand in the presence of the Holy.

Thank you again, kind teacher.

Sermon: Hope and Longing

candle hand blue“Hope and Longing”

(November 30, 2014 – First Sunday of Advent) In the wake of more racial injustice, and in the face of pandemic illnesses, what does it mean to hold out hope? Can we hear the sacred longing in our own cries of “how long?”, and cling to the Advent promise that Christ is and will be present with us? (Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19)

We Are Here.

dandelion seed 1I’m thinking of a Dr. Seuss story about Whos today.

No, not How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Although I’m feeling particularly non-Christmassy at the moment.

Let’s start there.

Remember Rev. Frank Schaefer? He’s the United Methodist pastor from Pennsylvania who officiated for the wedding of his son and his son’s husband in 2007, only to have an inactive church member file a complaint against him years later (and curiously, just after that inactive member’s mother had been fired by the church). Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of violating UMC polity by officiating the wedding and suspended for 30 days, at which point he was told he would have to either agree to uphold the entirety of the United Methodist Book of Discipline (whatever that means) or surrendered his credentials. This week, he refused to do either.

And so today, the Board of Ordained Ministry in his annual conference removed his clergy credentials.

Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus.

To be clear, I don’t even know if this is permissible under the rulebook Rev. Schaefer was accused of disobeying; the jury did not issue a sentence of defrocking, so it’s unclear if the board can apply that punishment now. And there are numerous other problems with the case. Rev. Schaefer says he will appeal.

But what hurts right now is that I’m trying, trying with all my faith and courage, to find some hope and love and peace and justice and joy this Advent and Christmas season. I don’t think I’m the only one. I think a lot of people need some hope and love, justice, joy, and peace. And I honestly believe the Christian church, even the United Methodist Church, has a faith to offer, a Christ to offer, a beloved community in God to offer, that can help us find those things.

And we’re not doing it.

We are, as Reconciling Ministries Network communication director Andy Oliver put it, choosing law over love, so unlike Joseph, who decided not to have Mary stoned as the law allowed, but to live into love.

Call me a Grinch, but I don’t like it. Not one little bit.

And yet, here we are. We are here.

On a day when the UMC defrocked a pastor for loving all people equally, for being a good pastor and a good dad, we are here. On a day when New Mexico ruled that it is in fact unconstitutional to deny marriages to same-gender couples, we are here. Just before the longest night of the year, when we most need our hope that love will be born in our world, we are here.

In the Dr. Suess story Horton Hears a Who!, the Whos (who live on a small speck on the puff of a flower) join their voices together so that they may be heard, not only by Horton, but by the cynics and doubters and narrow-thinking creatures as well. They chant and they call out, and they lift their voices, proclaiming the only thing they can say in their defense: we are here.

Only when every last Who has lifted a Yawp (a barbaric one, Walt Whitman?) are they heard.

For some reason, that’s where I am today.

Hope is hard, especially hope in my denomination. But then I wasn’t placing a lot of hope in the New Mexico Supreme Court and look at that. So I’m holding on. I am with Frank, and so many others, and I will not be moved. My one voice, joined with yours.

We are here.

Sermon: Christmas is Coming, George Bailey!

Bulletin Ad 3“Christmas is Coming, George Bailey!”

(December 15, 2013) George Bailey is at the end of his rope, unable to see a way forward, when Hope breaks into his life, against all odds. Can we learn from his story that hope can enter again, in unlikely places and through unlikely people, and to respond with compassion and love to those for whom hope is elusive or altogether lost? (Isaiah 35:1-11)

As I reference in my sermon, this week a student at Montpelier High school ended his life, and I pray these words and others like them remind us to respond in love and care. And as always if you are in a place where hope seems gone, or if you suspect a friend might be in such a place, say something. It’s hard and scary, but you don’t need to be afraid or ashamed. People will listen.

I name this portion of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” although of course you should watch the whole thing since it’s that time of year. ;)

The Advent series this year is a look at how God breaks into our lives when we least expect it and whether we’re ready or not. We’ll look at seasonal grumps who find transformation breaking into their lives: The Grinch, who experiences love; Ebenezer Scrooge, who moves toward justice; George Bailey, who rediscovers hope, and a Mystery Grump, in need of some Christmas joy.

Every year on this date, I thank God for Kathe Darr

candle hands 2It was the second full day of classes in the fall 2001 semester at Boston University School of Theology. The basement lecture hall was filled with first year graduate students, cut off from the sunlight and the outside world for the duration of the 9 am church history class. These were the days before smartphones and wifi, and only the students in the last row could see the rest of us playing solitaire games on our laptops or palm pilots, but no one was checking Facebook or Twitter, or receiving push notifications. One student came in late, and we thought nothing of it.

At the break before the next class, the student who had come in late described what she’d heard on the radio during her drive: that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Only when we took our break, and some of us ran to the mailroom to huddle around the radio, and others to the Student Union to find a TV, did the unfolding story begin to emerge.

Shell-shocked and horrified, we gathered again for Intro to Hebrew Bible. Dr. Kathe Darr walked in, her black binder and stack of papers clutched in her thin arms. She placed her burden down on the table at the front of the room, just next to the table-top podium, and walked out in front of the assembled class.

“I won’t wish you good morning,” she said in a voice that sounded angry, “because it’s not.”

We shuffled in our seats.

“This,” she said, lifting a stack of printed pages up into our view, “is my lecture for today. Yes, it is important. Yes, the material will be on the midterm. No, I will not rearrange my syllabus to deliver it at another time. My TAs will have copies for you before the next class. I expect that you will all read them. Thoroughly.”

She walked back behind the table, placed the pages on top of the podium, and gripped its sides in her long-nailed fingers.

“Now,” she said. “Let’s pray.”

And pray we did. She prayed, we prayed, whoever wanted to prayed. Then we talked and expressed fear, and tried to help one another contact loved ones in New York and Washington. And we prayed some more.

Together with my undergraduate professor, Fr. Joe McCaffrey, Kathe would go on to teach me the large majority of what I know about the Hebrew Bible, about the visceral and strange Book of Ezekiel, about the Hebrew language, and no small amount about biblical interpretation, history, and hermeneutics.

But that day, she taught me in word and deed how to lead in the midst of fear and sorrow and impossible turmoil. She taught me to be kind and firm, flexible and disciplined, to assess my own gifts and shortcomings and the needs of my congregants, and respond quickly, decisively, and always compassionately. And to pray.

Lost, and Finding…

16352_10200681626144596_496301929_n“I feel like a lost a year of my life.”

That’s what I tell people, and it’s true.

Struggle and strife in my marriage, counseling and arguing, separation and paperwork, single parenting and legal questions still unresolved (and a broken ankle, too). All of these things seemed to suck away my energy and consume my life, and I felt like I woke up a little in January, and have been waking up bit by bit ever since.

Finally cleared from my ankle fracture at the end of June, I’ve been able to start exercising again, making my way to Taekwondo with Ari (and sometimes on my own), and I even went running– two days in a row!– although that was a couple of weeks ago now…

So I’m starting to find my body again. It’ll take some time, and it’s not just about losing weight (although holy mackerel, there’s work to be done there), but about honoring and loving myself and my place in the world in an embodied way.

Finding my heart and spirit is gentler work, but requires the same sort of discipline, daily stretching and testing the muscles, building stamina and courage. This too is about honoring and loving myself and my place in the world, tentatively reaching back out to friends and family and community to re-forge the connections neglected or clouded by months of pain and self preservation.

And in all this, I’m starting to see that it’s not time that I’ve lost, but myself, or parts of myself. And maybe, when I’m honest, some parts have been missing for quite some time. But I’m finding them again, finding me again. Bit by bit, with the same faltering starts and stops with which I return to exercise and self care and deep belly laughter. But I’m there, underneath. Be gentle with me, but I’m there.

Hello, friends.

Sermon: Falling Scales– Ananias and the Boston Bombing

Photo by Heidi Carrington Heath

Photo by Heidi Carrington Heath

“Falling Scales”

(April 21, 2013) In the wake of the bombing in Boston this past week, we reflect on what it means to forgive, and to reach out to those we might call enemy, drawing on Jesus and the lesser known Ananias of Damascus as examples. (Acts 9:1-20)

Before the sermon, I played this video from MLB.com

During the sermon, I read this letter by Rev. Michael Rogers, S.J.

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