Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Holy Week Meditation

Inspired by a Palm Sunday sermon given by Rev. Cindy Weber to the saints at Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty.

Sunday is for praise.  At one end of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator, front man for Imperial Might, comes in with full military escourt, himself riding a white war horse.  He brings extra troops from the Syrian legate because these @#5! “Hebrews” or “Jews” are likely to rebel any time they gather in their capital with one of their weird religious/political holy days. And Rome, in her wisdom, has chosen him to keep order in this backwater of the empire.  But at the opposite gate of the city, Jesus of Nazareth and some of his followers engage in a little street theatre based on the prophet Zechariah:  Jesus enters Jerusalem not on a warhorse, but, in contrast both to Pilate and to David, on the colt of a donkey.  The disciples and crowds spread their cloaks on the ground in royal tribute and the crowds sing praises and wave palm branches.  The Pharisees and the temple elites, terrified that the Imperial Delegation will notice this royal tribute (that no one is giving Pilate!), try to quiet things down. Jesus laughs at them: If the crowds were to be silent, the very rocks would cry out! Sunday is for praise.

Monday is for anger.  After Sunday’s street theatre, Jesus takes nonviolent direct action campaign to the symbolic center of the Domination System:  The Temple.  He looks around the Court of the Gentiles and sees that what was intended as a “house of prayer for all nations” (“nations” and “gentiles” are the same word in Koine Greek) has been defiled as a place exploitive commerce.  The Torah laws specify what must be sacrificed “without blemish,” and the priests are the final arbiters of whether the offerings of the poor pure enough or not. If the answer is “no,” as it almost always is, they can buy a “pure and spotless” offering here in the temple–at extremely inflated prices. A single dove–the prescribed offering for the poor for most sacrifices–costs 20 days wages.  Jesus is pissed off!  He is furious at the exploitation of the poor and the complete disregard for the Gentiles, both.  He makes a whip of cords and uses it to drive out the cattle and oxen; he overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and frees the doves.  In horror, the merchants follow their wares out of the temple.  Jesus has challenged the entire temple system–judged it and found it wanting (“You see these great stones? I tell you not one will remain on another.”) .  Most New Testament scholars agree that it was Jesus’ temple action that led directly to his death at the hands of Powers That Be–But Jesus was furious at the system’s abuse of the poor and outsider. Monday is for anger.

Tuesday is for teaching and for speaking truth to power.  On Tuesday, Jesus returned to the Temple and taught the crowds. He could have used this time to attempt to patch things up with the authorities.  Instead, he confronts every power group in Jerusalem, confounding them all and leaving them speechless.  Powers and Authorities hate it when individuals or groups engage them in propheting truthtelling, saying, like Nathan to David, “Thou are the man!” You’re the one–you are the guilty parties.  Like Jesus and the prophets before us, the Church must boldly speak truth to power.” Tuesday is for teaching and speaking truth to power!

Wednesday is a day for listening. On Wednesday, Mary poured oil on Jesus’ head, anointing him for his burial.  He’d been telling his followers for some time that this trip to Jerusalem would end in his violent death. Most seemed to ignore him or not understand. But Mary had been listening–and her symbolic action showed that of all Jesus’ disciples, she got it.  Wednesday is a day for listening.

Thursday is a day for communing.  We all know the story of Maunday Thursday.  According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus holds a “Last Supper,” transforming the Passover Seder and reorganizing its symbols to become the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper.  According to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus girded himself with a towel and washed his disciples’ feet–performing the work of a servant.  These actions were taken in deep communion with his closest followers.  Thursday is a day for communing.

Friday is a day for despair.  Thursday ended with Jesus’ betrayal and arrest.  In the wee hours of Friday, some mock trials–full of illegalities–were held by the Sanhedrin, by Pilate, and by Herod.  Then Jesus’ was scourged and crucified between two rebel terrorists (ληστης, NOT κλεπτοι), crushing the hopes of all who followed him.  Friday is a day for despair.

Saturday is a day for hiding and mourning. The disciples scattered and fled at Jesus’ arrest lest the authorities arrest and execute them, too.  Today we mourn.  Any end to that grief will have to await another day–another week.  Saturday is a day for hiding and mourning.

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April 23, 2011 Posted by | Lent, liturgy | Leave a comment

Bonhoeffer as a Lenten Companion

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of the liturgical season of Lent. Last year, I gave some reflections on why this Baptist participates in Lent (and the Christian calendar more generally), which is not traditional to my Free Church tradition.  You can find that reflection here.

This year, I’ve decided to re-read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison for my Lenten meditations.  Prison writings seem to be a Christian invention, beginning with the Apostle Paul, and I have long been fascinated with both Christian and non-Christian writings from prison.  Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, with their deep Christocentric spirituality in the midst of great evil, their painful doubts, and their attempts to formulate of view of God for a “world come of age,” the “beyond in the midst of life,” still speak powerfully to our times of political and economic violence and oppression.

We still need the “acane discipline” of prayer as we seek to spend our lives in service and we still need the experience of suffering to learn to look at history “from the underside.”

So Bonhoeffer will be my companion as I seek to be a companion to Christ as he “set his face to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-56) and the cross.  With whatever your companions, I invite you to accompany Christ on the road to the cross, this Lent as well. 

And I suggest that prison writings make excellent resources for spiritual discipline.

March 7, 2011 Posted by | Lent | 2 Comments

Palm Sunday: Anti-Imperialist Street Theatre

Reprinted from my old blog, Levellers, last year.

In their popular work, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the contrast between Jesus’ entry into the East Gate of Jerusalem with Pilate’s military/imperialist entry into the West Gate of Jerusalem on the same day.  They state the simultaneous nature of these events with a little more certainty than is historically warranted, but we do know that Pilate did not normally reside in Jerusalem, but arrived with extra troops every year to keep the crowds from revolting Rome’s rule during Passover.  After all, Passover celebrates the Exodus, God’s liberating of His people from another oppressive empire long ago.  Discontent in the Jewish crowds would be strongest during Passover.

So, Pilate comes from the West with extra troops on war horses in a military display to cow the masses.  By contrast, Jesus arrives from the East in a carefully staged (getting the colt/foal of a donkey) counter-demonstration.  Drawing from Zechariah (not lost on the crowds), he presents a salvation from imperial rule that is not based on greater firepower, but on peace and meekness.

When we celebrate Palm Sunday, we don’t just remember the fickle crowds (so soon to desert Jesus, along with the 12) and their brief recognition/celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry. We also remember that Jesus presents us with a deliberate choice:  Following His Way of meekness, humility, and peace or the Way of Empire and military might.  There is no Way to follow Jesus that does NOT break from the military option.

March 27, 2010 Posted by | Lent, liturgy, Palm Sunday | Leave a comment

Holy Week Blog Break

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday the beginning of Holy Week, the celebration of Christ’s Passion, Death & Resurrection. This year the liturgical calendars of East and West line up so that both the Eastern and Western churches will celebrate Easter (Resurrection Sunday) on the same day.

I am taking an internet fast this week, under the shadow of the cross.  I will see you good people on Easter afternoon/evening when I will have reflections on each part of the week that just happened.

March 27, 2010 Posted by | blog, Lent, liturgy | Leave a comment

Freedom Sunday

This is the First Sunday of the Season of Lent.  It is also Freedom Sunday, promoted by organizations in the “New Abolitionist Movement” to highlight the problem of human trafficking and modern slavery.  I found out about this too late to urge my congregation to participate and it is too much to hope that all slavery and human trafficking will have ended in a year’s time–so I can urge both my congregation and yours to put Freedom Sunday on your annual calendars.  I also urge us all to find out more about human trafficking and modern slavery (including sex slavery, but also the way that much of the clothes we wear is produced by slave-labor in sweatshops in the global south) and what we can do to end it.

I think this is appropriately on the calendar for the First Sunday in Lent. No matter whether we observe some form of Lenten fasting or other spiritual disciplines, they are only a means, never the end in themselves.  As God says in Isaiah, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?” Isa. 58:6.

Here are some resources on human trafficking and the New Abolitionist Movement.

Race Traitor (online journal of new abolitionism)

Human Trafficking.org

Anti-Slavery International

Not for Sale campaign

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women

Child Trafficking. com

Captive Daughters

Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST)

Hagar International

Coalition of Organ-Failure Solutions (Fights the trafficking in human organs for transplants, including the kidnapping and trafficking of persons for theft of their organs.)

February 21, 2010 Posted by | justice, Lent, liturgy, oppression, slavery, worship | Leave a comment

Ashes to Ashes: One Baptist’s Reason for Observing Lent

The Western liturgical calendar was largely abandoned in the Protestant Reformation, especially by the Radical Reformers and later Believers’ Church groups, including my own tradition, the Baptists.  The more “low church” one’s tradition, the more likely that Christmas and Easter were the only holy days left in your liturgical calendar. (I can still remember one Baptist minister who said his church wouldn’t be doing anything on Easter that was different from any other Sunday because they ALWAYS celebrated Christ’s resurrection.)

The Medieval Church NEEDED huge reform, including reform in worship. And the desire of Reformers, Puritans, Anabaptists, Baptists, and others to scrape away encrusted ritual and return to forms of worship more directly patterned on the New Testament was laudable.  But count me among those who think that, in many cases, we threw out the baby with the bathwater.  The liturgical renewal movement, including the forging of a common church calendar and a common lectionary, has been one of the great gains of the Ecumenical movement.  Those Baptists who have been part of various national ecumenical bodies (e.g., the National Council of Churches in the US) and/or the World Council of Churches, have usually participated in this liturgical renewal. The American Baptists, the Alliance of Baptist, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, are in this conciliar ecumenical movement.  The Baptist groups which have not participated (including the SBC, the CBF, the Baptist General Conference, the Conservative Baptist Association, the North American Baptist Conference, etc.) have generally stood apart from this renewal–although individual congregations in each of these groups have participated.

Recently, several Baptists from my part of the world (the U.S. South), have written some strong arguments for observing the 40 days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, today.  Here is one such article by Darrell Pursiful, and another by Beth Felker Jones.  But I wanted to explain my own journey to the common Western liturgical calendar and then my personal reasons for observing Lent (and I’m lucky to belong to a Baptist congregation that observes Lent, too). (Note: There is tragedy and brokeness in my speaking of the Western calendar–for it points to the great schism between the Eastern churches and the Western churches.  Much healing is needed there, but that is a subject for another time. UPDATE: I learn from Pursifal that this year, the Eastern and Western churches both celebrate Easter on 04 April–which means we’ll also have the same Lents, Holy Weeks!)

First, I was not raised Baptist, but Methodist.  Now, if the United Methodists were participating in the ecumenical liturgical renewal (as they certainly are now) as far back as my childhood in the ’60s, I was not aware of it.  But we at least observed enough of the church calendar to have services all through Holy Week.  When I became a Baptist, I found no such services and we went straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday with nothing in between.  This made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why.  One day, a Catholic theologian friend of mine said to me, “The problem with you Protestants is that you raise Jesus from the grave too soon!” Well, I don’t know whether that was fair to all Protestants, but it certainly fit my experience with Baptists!  Going from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of RESURRECTION without any observance of abandonment and betrayal, suffering and death, was false to the gospel and it led to a triumphalism–a theology of glory instead of a theology of the cross, to use Luther’s terminology!  It gave us the “sweet Christ,”  when our suffering world cries out for the “bitter Christ,” (Thomas Müntzer) of Gethsemane and Golgotha. So, when I first began to be a student pastor, myself, I made sure to include services on Maunday Thursday and Good Friday.  (The Church might need to add to this to tell the Story correctly. We may need to add a “Confrontation Monday” that focuses on Jesus’ nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, too! And a Teaching Tuesday and Interrogation Wednesday, perhaps, as well.)

Building on that recovery of Holy Week, this then-young preacher discovered the need for the liturgical calendar: It teaches us Christians to narrate our lives according to the Christian Story: Advent teaches us to await the Christ (which also points to the Second Advent, we await as well) and prepare for his gracious coming. Christmas, despite its very maculate origins and borrowings from various pagan traditions, or, perhaps BECAUSE of that, helps us to celebrate fully the Incarnation, the En-Fleshing of God’s very Wisdom/Word. Epiphany, Pentecost, they all have their lessons. And Lent, too, as I’ll soon relate.  But without some such calendar, the Church gathered and scattered plots out life together and life scattered in the world by other calendars, other stories.  The liturgical calendar helps us make time sacred–to make our lives sanctified by living them according to other patterns than that of our respective cultures.  The forces of secularization are everywhere mighty–and the liturgical calendar is a shield that helps us resist the secularizing of time in our lives.  Without it, our churches still take note of the calendar, but worship is planned around President’s Day, and Independence Day, Groundhog Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day—a different narrative, often a RIVAL narrative, to the gospel.

So, I as a young preacher, started to plan my sermons and worship services  according to the liturgical calendar, and then to use the New Common Lectionary so that I did not simply preach my hobby horses. (I did not, at first, tell my congregation what I was doing! And I remain Free Church enough to not be ENSLAVED to a tool like the Lectionary–which can be set aside if the Spirit leads to a special need of the church. And since the selections for the Season of Pentecost/Ordinary Time are more haphazzard than the rest of the lectionary–especially in Year C–I would preach through whole books during the summer, a tradition that Calvin called Lectio continua and which has deep roots in Baptist life. It still put me on someone else’s agenda so that I did not preach only “my favorite verses” or my own “canon within the canon.”)

But, I admit, that I didn’t at first “get” Lent.  It seemed very “hair shirt” and to smack of “needless ritual.”  Smudging the head with ashes? Fasting or renouncing something for forty (40) days while spending time in introspection and repentence? Isn’t that too much bemoaning our sin and not celebrating the grace and new life in Christ which is ours to claim?  So, I dug into the history of Lent. (It’s what I do.) It arose AFTER the church was no longer an outlaw religion in the Roman empire. After Constantine’s shotgun wedding of church and empire, a process completed when Theodosius made the formerly illegal sect loved by women and slaves into the official Roman Imperial religion.  Suddenly the church had huge numbers of “Christians” who were so for appearance only.  Gone were the days of preparatory instruction (sometimes as much as 3 years!) before baptism (usually on Easter) into the church.  Gone was the costliness of Christianity and the apparent difference between church and world.  So, Lent arose out of the same process that created monasticism– a desire to help true Christians to reflect on the costliness of discipleship and to remind each other and ourselves that we are not the world, but strangers in an alien land (no matter how “Christian” our land claims to be) while the Lord tarries.

So, “dust to dust,” we are smudged with ash on a certain Wednesday to remind us of our mortality, both as frail creatures of dust, and as followers of the One who told us that following Him would lead to death. With Jesus our brother, author and pioneer of our faith, we “set our face(s) to Jerusalem,” toward rejection, betrayal, abandonment, persecution by the Powerful, and unjust death.  Oh, there is triumph and joy coming, friends, but no one gets there without going through a certain Place of the Skull. We are living out a story in which none of us gets out alive–as even our baptisms proclaim.  We are smudged on a Wednesday and then, helping us to set our faces to Jerusalem with Jesus, we practice the ancient discipline of fasting, we give up something, deprive ourselves–of meat or sweets or alcohol or all of the above. We embrace an extra practice, spending more time in prayer or visiting the sick, or any combination of the above.  We do this not out of some dreadful masochism, as I once thought, but because discipline and privation provide FOCUS–for our minds, hearts, souls.  “Purity of heart,” said Kierkegaard, “is to will ONE thing,” namely that which GOD wills. That takes focus, clarity. But the pure in heart, a Higher Authority than Kierkegaard even, assured us, will SEE GOD.

Thus, I, a Baptist, observe Lent.  Not because I think ritual saves me–grace does that. Nor because Lent is the only way to remember we are NOT the world–the Amish remember without Lent quite nicely.  But because this is one way that we can remember who we are and Whose we are ALONG WITH all our sisters and brothers in Christ.  Lent not only purifies us as the Church, but, helps this Body of Christ be, for 40 days, a little over a month, somewhat less shattered and scattered and broken into fragments.  Jesus prayed that we would all be one. I do not believe that takes a necessarily INSTITUTIONAL unity–but it will need to be a visible unity–and what could be more visible than the Body of Christ, Protestant and Catholic and Anglican (and, this year, the Eastern Orthodox on the same calendar) and Pentecostal and Free Church all being smudged with ash and practicing some form of fasting for 40 days?

Let us, with Jesus, set our faces toward Jerusalem tonight. “Remember, O Mortal, that Thou art Dust. From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Amen.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, ecumenism, Lent, liturgy, worship | 25 Comments