Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Recognizing Jesus

The gospel story says that when Mary Magdalene saw the risen Christ at the tomb on Easter morning that she did not recognize him. She thought he was the gardener. I have never seen a painting or drawing that captures this moment accurately. They all picture the resurrected Jesus in spotless, dazzling white apparel – like someone starring in a laundry detergent commercial.

Think about that for a moment? What gardener would wear pure white clothing to work? When I come home from a couple of hours of working in my vegetable garden I look like a Morlock. You know, one of those underground humanoid mutants in H. G. Wells “The Time Machine.” I am absolutely filthy. I immediately jump in the shower just to feel human again.

I think that is the reason that Mary did not recognize Jesus. He looked like a gardener. In other words he was dirty and sweaty. No glowing otherworldly robes. He looked like he had hung on a cross for six hours and spent the night in a cave. Maybe that is why Jesus told Mary not to touch him. He needed to get cleaned up first.

Furthermore this was no ordinary garden, and this was no ordinary gardener. This was a cemetery. This “gardener,” whom Mary mistook Jesus for, was a groundskeeper and gravedigger. His job was to tend the cemetery grounds and dig graves for those too poor to afford a family tomb.

That necessitated being around dead bodies every day. That made him not only physically dirty but ritually unclean in the eyes of religious Jews. He was not welcome in the Sadducees’ temple or the Pharisees’ synagogues. Those who dealt with death were the untouchables of Jewish society.

That is why two of Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him on the Emmaus Road later that day. He looked like a weary Passover pilgrim who had walked the dusty roads of Palestine in caravans for days to get to Jerusalem. Jesus did not look like a shining demigod, but a dirty stranger.

This slant on the Easter story fits right into Jesus’ teachings. Jesus identified with the undesirables. He said that his followers were to treat the outcasts of society as they would treat him. He mentions specifically the homeless, hungry, prisoners and “strangers,” by which he meant foreigners. You know, those people we want to keep out with a wall.

Jesus comes to us today not in the form of clean, righteous, religious people, nicely dressed for Sunday worship. He comes in the form of those too dirty to hug. Those who have traveled on dusty roads for miles. Those who have slept outdoors. The homeless and the illegal immigrants. Criminals and drug abusers and the sexually immoral. The type of riffraff that Jesus hung out with all the time during his ministry. In other words, our brothers and sisters.

When Mary finally recognizes Jesus under all the dirt, she does not hesitate to run to him and embrace him. When the two disciples on the Emmaus road invite this dusty stranger into their home and are willing to eat with him, only then are their eyes opened to recognize him. Some things never change. Jesus still comes to us in this guise. May we have eyes to recognize him and hearts to embrace him.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Primary Prayers

They are lining up to become president… again. The New Hampshire primary is one year away. Presidential hopefuls are already beginning to dip their toes into the frigid political waters of New Hampshire. What drives this quadrennial parade of would-be messiahs? What makes us think that things will be any different this time?

It is not that I don’t enjoy the game. I could do without the annoying political phone calls and ads, but I enjoy meeting the candidates. I like shaking their hands and asking the occasional question. I will drive up to an hour to hear stump speeches from candidates of both parties. I saw almost all of them last time around, including the present occupant of the White House. In the end I am nearly always disappointed.

Most of us have lived long enough to realize things will never be the way we think they ought to be. Jesus said there will always be wars and rumors of war. He said the poor will be with us always. He has been proven right so far. 

So why do I get my hopes up again? I am not looking for a Savior. I already have one. I am not looking for peace of mind or soul. I have found that also. I am not looking for security. There is no such thing. I have no loyalty to a political party. I am independent and unaffiliated. I am just hoping that things can be better for more people in our society, especially those who are the worst off.

On the sign in front of the church we attend in Florida is a permanent quote from the Hebrew prophet Micah. My wife and I have cherished the verse all our lives. When we were young we valued it so highly that we gave our youngest son the middle name Micah. It reads, “What does the Lord require of you? It is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

In spite of the disappointments, my faith leads me to hope that a president can make a difference. I hope that all people – regardless of their race, gender, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, gender identity, financial status, religious beliefs or lack of them, their disabilities or differing abilities – that all peoples may be welcomed as full and equal members of American society.

I pray that we will not destroy the natural environment of our planet beyond repair. I pray that all people may live in freedom and without fear. I pray that children can grow up without the threat of gun violence or drug addiction. I pray that children will not needlessly die of preventable diseases. There are so many issues. I could easily extend the list to a dozen more.

I know it sounds idealistic, like something out of a Martin Luther King documentary. But it is people I am concerned about, not politics. I meet the candidates not to learn their stances on the issues. I could do that research online. I meet them to look them in the eye and hopefully find a compassionate, ethical human being who has the intelligence and the experience to make a difference in our country. I’ll settle for three out of the four. So I hope and I pray.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Peace Is All Around

When I was younger I was on a spiritual search. Then one day I was simply following Jesus, and I found myself at peace. I saw what was right before my eyes. The heart of the spiritual life is not a destination; it is a journey. The early Christians called it “the Way.” It is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Now I wonder: What’s the big deal about a spiritual search? What is there to look for? God is right before our eyes. All we have to do is wake up and see!

We live in a God-drenched universe. The peace of Christ exudes from every living thing. It peeks out from every bush. It rests under every rock. It is within us as the Kingdom of God, as Jesus taught. Christ is alive here and now. As Jesus said, according to the Gospel of Thomas, "Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me." Or as he said in the Gospel of Matthew, "I am with you always."

The Way of Christ is not to be found in a creed or a religion. It is not about doctrine or ritual. It is the living presence of Christ. Christ is. As Jesus was fond of saying, "I am." Or as God said to Moses, "I am that I am." There is nowhere God is not. There is no time when God's peace is not present.

This awareness is my constant companion. It is like background music. I may not always be conscious of it playing, but all I have to do is turn my attention to it, and I find myself humming along. The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sings his handiwork. How can people not join the song?

Not that I don't have my share of problems. I do, and they are real, and they can hurt. But they are storms that come and go. The discordant noise of the world can drown out the peace of God momentarily, like a car booming out ear-thumping hip hop beside you at a stop light. But then the light changes, the noise moves on, and the hymn of the universe returns.

Furthermore I do not always avail myself of the peace that is at hand. I get caught up in my sins, quirks, and personality flaws. I am apt to wallow in the mud even when the streams of living water are available for bathing. I have bouts of spiritual amnesia, when I forget who and what I really am. Then I remember that peace is always present, even if I am not present to it.

This is the peace of Christ. Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you. Not as the world gives, do I give to you." This is the apostle’s “peace of Christ that surpasses human understanding, which guards your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is eternal life.  Not a reward waiting for us after death, but a reality accessible here and now. This is our birthright. Peace is all around. Welcome home.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

When Faith Becomes Hate

A hate crime last week in Louisville did not get the publicity of last year’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which is only right since no one was physically harmed. But it was an act of hate nonetheless. It has affected me because I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, for a while.

I went to seminary in Louisville for three years in the 1970’s while getting my Master of Divinity degree and returned annually in the early 1980’s for three more years to attend classes while earning my Doctorate.

Last week someone vandalized the Hindu temple on Bardstown Road, just down the street from the church where I served as a pastoral intern. A photograph of the graffiti published in the Courier Journal caught my attention. Across the entrance to the Swaminarayan Temple were spray-painted the words: “Jesus is the only Lord” accompanied by a cross.

Elsewhere in the building the words "Jesus Is All Mighty," "Jesus Is Lord," and "God" were painted on walls, as well as numerous crosses. A picture of a Hindu deity was defaced. There was also more typical hate speech emblazoned across a bulletin board calling Hindus "foreign b*****s."

It is despicable, of course. What bothered me the most is that my religion had been hijacked. Phrases meant to be professions of faith were used as instruments of intolerance and hate. I wonder if the teenage vandal (who was caught and charged on Thursday) understands the depth of his betrayal of his Christian faith. Probably not.

He is probably as clueless as the other Kentucky teenager from a Christian school in Covington, who gained notoriety with his “smirk seen round the world” on Martin Luther King weekend. The additional videos and testimony that have surfaced since the episode at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, have helped to put the incident in a wider context, but the verdict remains the same.
But no matter how one spins the facts and or paints the MAGA teen’s adolescent motives, his facial expression and body language (as well as those of his fellow students) and his refusal to step aside for a Native American procession betray an attitude of disrespect for the religious ceremony that the Native American elder was leading.

What bothers me the most is that these young men profess to be Christians. The Louisville teen probably thought he was being zealous for the Lord by attacking a place of “idolatry” like his heroes in the Bible. The Covington youth said in his public statement that he is “a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic” and that he was actually praying while he was in the face of a Native American elder.

These are examples of a faith that has been corrupted and distorted into something base. I know nothing about the Louisville youth. The 17 year-old’s name has been withheld because he is a juvenile, but you can bet that he learned those slogans in church and Sunday School. I hope his church quickly releases a statement condemning the attack.

I hope my alma mater in Louisville also condemns the attack. I have been checking the blog site of Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but I haven’t seen a response yet. I am not holding my breath. In a 2006 television interview on Fox’s The O'Reilly Factor (March 17), Mohler called Hinduism “a demonstration of Satanic power.”

When I did a search for “Hindu” on Mohler’s site, all that appeared was a 2010 article warning Christians not to practice yoga and a 2009 post condemning Hinduism as a “false gospel” and reminding readers that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior.” Sounds a lot like the Louisville vandal.

In this age when hate speech is polarizing Americans and acts of right wing terrorism are increasing in the United States (while Islamic terrorism is decreasing in our country, according to the Global Terrorism Index) Christians would do well to be careful what we say and how we say it.

America’s youth (at least the ones who still attend church) are listening, and some take what they hear from the pulpit seriously. As American Christianity is declining and churches are emptying out, it would be wise for Christians to be more tolerant and accepting of religious minorities. We might be one soon.