Proper 12 (July 30, 2017)

A Dab Will Do Ya

My family is a family of movie watchers. Actually, to be more correct, we are a family of movie quoters. We can have entire conversations consisting merely of movie quotes. One movie that gets quoted on a more than regular basis is O Brother Where Art Thou. This retelling of the Odyssey, set in the Great Depression has quite a few quotable lines—but the one that gets used the most is “a dab will do Ya”. In the movie it is an often repeated phrase of Ulysses Everett McGill, our protagonist, about his favorite hair pomade–a product that he is always looking for, but can rarely find on his journey–but my family has used this phrase for everything from salsa to sunscreen.

This quote can also be applied to today’s gospel. In the first part of today’s Gospel, Jesus presents a number of parables describing the Kingdom of God. In each case, the item representing the Kingdom of God is relatively small—a mustard seed, yeast, a pearl.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

This is a packet of yeast. This envelope is at most a quarter full. When you mix it into 3 cups of flour to make a loaf of bread, you can barely tell it is even there. And yet these little specks have enough power to rise a loaf of bread and make it come out 2 or 3 times its original size. A dab will do.
Now, nice, pre-measured packets of yeast are a fairly recent invention—only about 100 or so years old. Before that, the yeast, or leaven, a baker would use would be wild yeast that floated in the air and a home cook would catch with something like a sourdough starter. These leavenings would be carefully nursed through good times and bad, though moves and marriages. A good leavening would only take a pinch to make the whole batch of baking rise.
And, just like a San Francisco sourdough tastes different than one make here in Grand Island because of the different locations and types of yeast present, so too would each baker’s leavening make the their bread taste different—it was made to fit into those specific circumstances. So too is the Kingdom of God–it appears in each person’s life to fit their world.

But finding the Kingdom of God in the world is not always easy. When theologians talk about trying to find the Kingdom of God in the world today, they often talk about Proleptic Eschatology or the “already but not yet”. This language of “already but not yet” can come across as very heady, but it can be explained in an easier way. The best way I have heard this described actually involved pancakes, but any two flat items can be used. You have two pancakes, and they are moving back and forth towards each other and away from each other. And every so often, they meet and overlap. Because there isn’t any set pattern to their movement, you don’t know when they will overlap, or how long they will stay overlapped, but you know that they will overlap at points.

The times when the pancakes overlap is like times we find the Kingdom of God in our world. We know it has happened in the past, we know that it will happen in the future, but we don’t know when exactly we will find it.

With all that happens in our lives, it can be hard to tell when our pancake and the Kingdom of God’s pancake are running into each other. Much like our main character in O Brother Where Art Thou looking for his hair pomade, often times it can feel as though we are looking and looking for the Kingdom of God and just cannot find it no matter how hard we try. It is times like this that the Holy Spirit comes to our aid. As we heard at the beginning of our lesson from Romans,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

When we can’t see the Kingdom of God’s pancake for all the other pancakes in our lives—when we can’t figure out God’s work in the world—the Holy Spirit intercedes.

Every week when we gather together here, we pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God when we pray the Our Father:

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

When we pray this, we are praying in the hope of seeing the Kingdom of God in the world and in our lives. We are looking forward to the day when the Kingdom of God is fully present in our broken world.

But sometimes our world seems so broken that it can be hard to pray in hope of seeing the Kingdom of God. But we are not alone in our hopelessness. We have been sent help–the Holy Spirit is our advocate, pleading on our behalf when we just can’t figure out what to say, turning our very sighs into an essential part of our communication with God. Because God knows what it is like to live in a broken world and is there for us not just in our joys but also our challenges and sorrows.

Good Friday (April 14, 2017)

Deep Magic and Atonement Theology

I have always loved fantasy and science fiction. I had a favorite episode of Star Trek by age 6. When I was in Elementary school, my best friend suggested a book and I fell in love with it.  The plot included a group of children, sent away from their home for their own safety, who find their way into a magical world of talking animals, prophesies, and a tyrannical ruler who has made it always Winter and never Christmas.  Still to this day, C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” has a special place in my heart.

At the heart of the story is the conflict between The White Witch, the tyrannical false queen of Narnia, and Aslan, Son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea, and rightful ruler of all Narnia. After Edmund betrays his siblings, the White Witch lays claim to his life. Aslan offers his life in place of Edmund’s to fulfill the Deep Magic and free Edmund from his debt. But Aslan, “being a willing victim who has committed no treachery…killed in a traitor’s stead” was bound by a far Deeper Magic than the Witch anticipated.  Because of this the stone table will crack and death will reverse itself.

Much like Edmund, we do not always do what we are supposed to do. As Isaiah puts it, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” In many ways this verse can act as a summation of all of today’s readings. In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, we have the suffering servant, foretelling the role of Jesus, whose life is to be an offering for sin. In the Gospel we have Jesus’s arrest and death. In Hebrews, we are shown the aftermath of Jesus’s death—our sins will be remembered no more.

In addition to the readings centering on the topic of the death of Jesus, they also center around a theological topic—Atonement. When we talk about Christ dying for our sins, we are talking about Justification. However, when we talk about how exactly Jesus dying wipes away our sins, we move into talking about Atonement. One interesting thing about Atonement is that there are a ton of atonement theories, all of which draw on the bible and early church teachings. One reason why there are so many different understandings of Atonement is because the theological concept is an attempt at taking about something happening  in the inner workings of God, which is something that is so beyond our frame of reference that we end up using all sorts of different language to try and explain it. Atonement is in many ways theology’s version of the Deeper Magic—something we don’t (and can’t) quite fully understand, but exists all the same.

Both the Old Testament and Epistle readings connect with the Gospel through Jesus’s death. To fully understand what is happening we must understand the context of the reading. At the time this is taking place, Judea under the rule of the Roman Empire. Because of this, they could not always make all their own judicial decisions—such as putting someone to death. Only the Roman authorities, in this case Pontius Pilate, could do so. For this reason the Jewish authorities, headed up by the chief priest, decided that it would be better to find some way to create charges against Jesus that the Romans would find punishable by death in their quest to be rid of Jesus. That is why the notion of Jesus declaring himself King of the Jews is so important. By declaring himself King of the Jews,  Jesus would have been committing treason against the  Roman Empire, since there was only one ruler and that was the Caesar. The power relations between the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities is the reason that Jesus is driven from one place to another throughout the passion narrative.

The timing of this accusation is also rather suspect. As Jesus points out the Jewish officials had plenty of time to arrest him. He had not been speaking in private, but rather he had always spoken in public in the synagogues and at the temple where the Jewish officials would have had plenty of reason to have heard everything he said. But they have arrested him only days after he has triumphantly entered Jerusalem to the rejoicing of the crowds.

Throughout this Gospel reading we can see the beginnings of a variety of atonement theories. One that especially stands out is the moral Exemplar Theory most often associated with Abelard. Abelard was a 12th century French monk and theologian whose theory simply states that Jesus loved the world so much that he set out to be an example that we can follow and that this love went so far that he was willing to die for us to free us from sin. Throughout the text we see Jesus time and again reiterate that he has not done anything illegal but has taught where everyone could hear what he was saying. Also, rather than complain about unjust treatment, which he could have done most certainly, instead he remained silent as is prophesied at the end of our Old Testament reading:

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep before its shearers is silent so he did not open his mouth.

In our Old Testament text we also have imagery of the Lord’s servant taking punishment  on our behalf and carrying the iniquity of all:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

It is through this punishment that we are made whole. This concept of Christ taking our punishment for us falls into the theory of substitutionary atonement. The most famous advocate of this theory was an Italian, Anselm of Canterbury, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. Anselm basically argued that we, through sin, has wronged God so much that no matter what we do, we can never make it right. Because of this Jesus, who has not wronged God in the slightest, being without sin, offers to make it right with God on our behalf. Through Jesus substituting himself for us we are made righteous Or as Isaiah put it:

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

In the epistle reading we see a different sort of imagery used to describe how Jesus’s death on the cross works to remove our sins:

let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Rather than falling within substitutionary atonement, this falls more into the scapegoat model of the atonement. The scapegoat originates in  the Old Testament practice of the scapegoat where a goat was sacrificed and its blood was used to purify the high altar in the Temple in Jerusalem of the sins of the people, on a yearly basis. But in this version of Atonement theory, rather than this blood cleansing happening year after year, it has happened once for all time—past, present, and future people are cleansed of all their sins for all the time. In  this sacrifice, Jesus acts as both holy priest and as the scapegoat cleansing all our sins.

The thing about Atonement is, however Jesus’s wiping away our sins works, since Jesus is God he is “being a willing victim who has committed no treachery” and is “killed in a traitor’s stead”. He is bound by deeper forces.

At this point in Holy Week, Jesus has died on the cross. But just like in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this is not the end of the story. The Deeper Magic of the Atonement is at work.