Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's a Good Friday World

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)
Once upon a time, somebody described the Christian life as “believing in Easter in a Good Friday world.” I don’t know who said it, but whoever it was got it right. Each springtime we Christians celebrate Easter and even with the holiday’s pagan roots and tales of candy deliver-ing rabbits we still manage to talk about an empty tomb and a guy named Jesus who couldn’t stay dead. Yet, this celebration of good conquering evil, hope winning out over fear and life overcoming death can be a bitter pill for some to swallow. For many, the resurrection has not come yet; they remain in a Good Friday world due to pain, grief and hardship.

Our world is a broken one filled with much violence, despair and disappointment. We live in a world where tornadoes come out of the sky to rip apart lives as happened this week. We live in a world where earthquakes and tsunamis destroy entire cities as happened last month. We live in a world where car bombs and smart bombs kill indiscriminately as happened—pick any day in the last two decades. We live in a world where a few can enrich themselves by cheating our entire nation without fear of ever being held to account as happened in the financial collapse. We live in a world where children are abused, marriages fall apart, women are raped, and people are assaulted for their skin color or their sexual orientation as happens each and every day. The violence and despair of the cross rather than the empty tomb mirrors the reality of much of humanity.

Critics rightfully charge that the events of Holy Week are often empty rituals or worse rituals filled with debilitating guilt and shame, but I prefer to think of them in their best form as an honest appraisal of reality. One of the appealing things for me about Christianity is that, despite the deformed manifestations of it that emphasize prosperity over sacrifice, it faces squarely just how screwed up the world can be. Furthermore, it has the temerity to declare that God gets to experience this world in all its “screwed-up-ness” along with us. Violence, death, betrayal, abandonment, fear, terror, hypocrisy, abuse of power, etc. etc. etc.—it’s all there in the Gospels for us to read, if we dare.  If our Easter celebrations are empty of meaning, then perhaps it is because we skipped from Palm Sunday to Easter without stopping at Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.

In our tradition, the ministers of the church do not speak for God; each believer has her or his own relationship with God and can directly experience God’s presence. Yet, sometimes I do perform a sort of “priestly” role for people experiencing difficult times. They come to me in order to share their difficult experiences and in response I get to acknowledge that difficulty and declare that God acknowledges that difficulty too. The events of Holy Week serve a similar purpose. They are a means for us as a church to validate the experience of the one who hurts and doubts by demonstrating in services and rituals that Jesus experienced similar troubles. Holy Week declares that God is not removed but in solidarity with people who are hurting. It is only after we have done this “priestly” work for one another that we can celebrate the empty tomb in a significant manner

The writer Mary Gordon says, “For me the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility.” By that, I take her to mean that the resurrection we celebrate on Easter and we hope to experience ourselves is a decision to believe in the possibility that Good Friday does not have an ultimate claim upon who we are. The pain of this life is not all there is and one way or another we will not be defined by our pain but by the grace we experience from God. Yet, if we gloss over the pain or worse seek to deny its existence altogether, then our celebration is trite and without significance. For us to truly celebrate the possibility that our lives, our deaths and whatever we experience beyond them shall all transcend the troubles we have known, we have to admit there are troubles in the first place.

This Holy Week, I pray that you are finding ways to face with courage the broken reality of this world, and that you will journey with the rest of God’s people towards the empty tomb and the promises it offers.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

You can listen to my sermons on my church's web site

After much delay and much grace freely given by folks who are more technologically proficient than I, my sermons are now available on the church web site as audio files (MP3).  You can listen to them on-line. 

Folks routinely ask me for written copies of my sermons, but despite the efforts of college and seminary preaching professors, I have never really been able to write a sermon manuscript ahead of time.  My style is to speak without notes and the content I've prepared ahead of time may or may not make it into the final presentation depending on my memory, my sense of the audience and hopefully the guidance of the Spirit.  Also I've tried having my sermons transcribed and then edited, but that requires more time than I have to give. 

So, should any care to hear it them a first or second time, my sermons are now on the web site.

When Evil Goes Public--stuff from Sunday's sermon

In my sermon this past Sunday--Palm Sunday--I asked the congregation to imagine themselves in the place of the crowd which cheered Jesus on Palm Sunday but mocked him on Friday.  I used the analogy of a stock offering--I.P.O--"Initial Public Offering"--to talk about how an evil that belongs to a few is bought into by many--hence a crowd that supports Jesus one day can abandon him a few days later.

One of my illustrations came from a favorite public radio program of mine, This American Life.  On a recent episode entitled "See No Evil" excerpts were read from the book Voices of Chernobyl which detailed how all sorts of officials overrode their own consciences and bought into the cover-up and deception regarding the tragic effects of released radiation from the reactor.

I also spoke about Civil War historian and documentarian, Ken Burns' remarks about how a nation would allow its economy to become dependent upon slave labor (the best analogy he could come up with was our current dependence upon fossil fuels even though we know it's bad for all involved), despite the fact that most people knew it was wrong, as well as the many Germans in Nazi Germany who were guilty bystanders to the Holocaust (e.g. Hannah Arendt's book on Adolf Eichmann which labeled it the "banality of evil").  It seems only in retrospect--and many times not even then--can we admit the complex evils we are a party to.

In my opinion only the saving grace of God can truly reveal to us our own complicity in the brokenness of our world in the present tense--otherwise we find our ways to justify our actions until a day when we can admit our faults without having to sacrifice anything to change them.

A Response to Shirley Phelps-Roper--Letter to the Editor St. Joseph-News Press

The following letter was printed in the St. Joseph News-Press on Saturday, April 16.  Unfortunately, I guess their web person was off on Saturday, so they did not publish it on their web site.

April 15, 2011

 Dear Editor,

I read the April 14 letter from Shirley Phelps-Roper with dismay, if not surprise.  I am disappointed that the News-Press chose to publish her letter and gave her hateful, bigoted mockery of a church free publicity.  Although I believe firmly that the expression of diverse points of view is the hallmark of a free society, I do not believe giving attention to the most virulent and extreme viewpoints is the obligation of any media outlet.  Whether it is the pastor in Florida choosing to burn a copy of the Qur’an or the Phelps group, at some point the members of the media become complicit in these groups’ bigotry by providing a forum for people who ultimately care only about self-promotion.

As for Phelps-Roper’s statement that nothing can stop the work of her group (presumably because God is on their side), I beg to differ.  Her group will be stopped, first of all, when reporters and editors finally stop giving them the attention they crave.  When we realize that such offensive behavior is so offensive that it is not worth our attention, we will move on and spend our energy on addressing the real needs of our society rather than wasting it on a group whose behavior amounts to the same thing as a spoiled toddler’s tantrums. 

Furthermore, we as a community of people with diverse views and beliefs can consciously choose to not allow a group like Phelps-Roper’s to dictate our behavior.  The best response to them is to not lower ourselves to their atrocious standards.  Where they sow seeds of hatred, abuse and scorn, let us as a people choose the better way and reap love, dignity and respect.  The proper response to Phelps-Roper’s group is to first ignore them and second define ourselves by our deepest values rather than our shallowest prejudices.

Rev. Chase Peeples

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Make Time for Holy Week?

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)

The date for Easter changes each year (according to a method of calculation I still cannot understand despite much time spent trying to do just that), but no matter when Easter comes in March or April people are busy.  The date of Easter and thus Holy Week prior to it changes, but the ordinary routines of life do not.  Children must still be cared for, taken to soccer games and play dates.  Elderly parents must be checked on and visited.  Doctor visits still must be kept.  If you are lucky, you may get Good Friday off, but most likely you are working at least some of the time during Holy Week and Easter weekend.  If you have time off, there is probably a voice in your head telling you in a very convincing manner that the thing you need most is to sleep.
            For all I know, some folks are at such a low place mentally and physically that they really do need to rest above all else, but I’m guessing the rest of us probably just need to readjust our attitudes, priorities and schedules.  So here’s my list of reasons you should make time for Holy Week this year.

1.      You’re a Christian, dummy.  This stuff is supposed to matter to you.  It should be obvious, but I think it needs to be said—in the Christian life Easter should be your most important holiday.  I know Easter doesn’t come in the middle of winter when we’re all in need of some cheering up.  I know thinking about a baby Jesus is a lot more fun than thinking about an adult Jesus who dies in a horrible manner.  I know that giving and getting presents is more exciting than thinking about an empty tomb.  Heck, I know that other holidays when you get to drink green beer or send valentines or eat turkey have their appeal.  BUT the heart of the Christian faith for each believer should be in some way a sense that Jesus Christ’s rejection, betrayal, suffering, death and eventual resurrection mean something significant.  At FCC, I know we have a wide spectrum of belief about who Jesus was/is and what his life/death/resurrection mean, but whoever Jesus is to you the most significant events of his life should be worth reflecting on.

2.      You’re part of a church and churches make time for Holy Week.  Yes, yes, I know each person can worship God in his or her own way and you can experience God in nature or on your living room sofa.  Yada, yada, blah, blah.  Every year somebody makes a wise crack to me about the people who only show up at church on Easter and Christmas.  Although I know where the frustration comes from, I reply, “Well at least they showed up on Christmas and Easter.  What’s everybody else’s excuse?” 

A church is about more than individual piety or concerns.  It is not about being a consumer of a product.  A church is a community of people that gather together in the sight of God, because somehow being together—with all our faults and hypocrisies—means more than being apart.  It matters that we are together, and this is especially true during Holy Week as we reflect together on the human capacity for rejecting the ways of God.

3.     Rituals are only empty when you choose to make them so.  Some long-time church goers may admit when pressed that they have done Holy Week so many times that it has lost its meaning.  My reply is to ask, “Whose fault is that?”  Sure pretty much every church could use a little freshening up of its Holy Week traditions, but the power of Christ’s last week does not lay in how well the tenebrae service readers do their parts, how well the choir sings or how well the preacher preaches.  The power of Holy Week is in the story itself and the difference it makes in the life of the believer.  If you walk away unmoved or indifferent or worse—unchallenged in your own complacency, then perhaps you were focusing upon the wrong things.

The rituals of Holy Week—waving palm branches, darkening the lights, partaking communion, celebrating on Easter morning—can be empty if we choose for them to be.  I believe, however, that even when we do not feel like doing them, rituals change us.  The Catholic writer Mary Margaret Nussbaum writes, “You become what you do.  We are shaped from the outside in . . . we bend and we kneel, even when our head is clouded and our spirit is grudging. We cross ourselves even as our faith fails. We light candles and sing "O Radiant Light, O Sun Divine," even when the world seems dark.”  As Protestants, our rituals may be different from Nussbaum’s, but her point remains true across traditions--our rituals have the power to transform us “from the outside in.”  The rituals of Holy Week certainly have that power.

If you’re reading this church newsletter, then you’re probably not the ideal audience for my thoughts on Holy Week.  After all, just the fact that you took time to read your church newsletter indicates that you are more committed than many.  However, perhaps even the kind of church member dedicated enough to read the newsletter needs a reminder of the importance of Holy Week.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, April 8, 2011

Is the Bible True?

This spring I've been teaching a class on the bible at Missouri Western State University and it's been a great experience.  One of the things I have struggled to communicate, however, is the different ways the term "truth" is used when discussions of the Bible's authority occur.  There is often an assumption that we are talking about the kind of truth that can be proven in a laboratory or truth that is like the solution to a math problem, but the writers of the Bible were concerned with a different kind of truth--namely what truth does God wish to communicate regarding  identity and community.

David Lose, whom I read regularly for his thoughts on preaching, has a really great column published recently on-line on just this subject.  I shared it with my class, because Lose manages to make the point I've been struggling to make in a concise and readable manner.  I'm grateful to him for putting such an articulate piece out there on such a complicated topic.

What the Hell? (Dialogue Column 4.5.11)

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)

I have a soon-to-be 8 year-old at home, and despite the best efforts of his mother and I, he is inevitably learning curse words from friends at school.  He will come home and ask about what certain words mean, and I’m grateful that we can discuss them by their first letter designations (e.g. the “d-word,” “s-word,” “f-word,” etc.)  The strange thing is when as an adult you try to break down the meaning of these bad words they often do not make sense.  Although we think we know what we mean when we use them (and yes I’m sad to say they occasionally escape the lips of your minister), the words are often said in ways that make little grammatical sense, much less any other kind of sense.
When it comes to the “h-word,” things get complicated.  Unlike other curse words that refer to bodily waste or anatomical functions, “hell” is used in a lot of different ways, most of which people (myself included) don’t take much time to think about.  Take, for instance, the title of this column: “What the hell?”  (My apologies to anyone offended, but I felt like it would at least grab your attention.)  If you think about it, despite its cultural connotations, the phrase doesn’t really make sense, at least not grammatically.  Depending on its context it can indicate confusion or resignation (the latter can range from weary to bemused). 
I think that confusion and resignation are probably adequate ways of describing how we use the term “hell” in its more grammatically appropriate manner too.  When we speak of “hell” as a place where people go for eternal punishment, we usually imagine underground caverns filled with lakes of fire and damned souls undergoing torment.  Yet, those images have little to do with any portrayal of hell in the Bible and more to do with Milton’s Paradise Lost, various medieval paintings and in my case, the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid.  When we actually look at the Bible passages that refer to life after death, we find very little that is clear, thus we read into it two millennia of changing theology.  Because these passages are so unclear, confusion and resignation set in—or perhaps a false sense of confidence .
In the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is a common belief about an abode for the dead (Sheol in the Hebrew Bible and Hades in the New Testament—both often mistranslated as hell) where the souls of the dead remain in a shadowy existence.  Later Jewish thought and Christians along with them came to believe in a general resurrection of the dead when God would let all the souls out of this waiting room and then judge between the righteous and unrighteous.  What happens after judgment?  That’s not clear.  Some texts (for instance some parables of Jesus) seem to describe torment (e.g. “wailing and gnashing of teeth”), but it’s not until later Christian writings from the second century forward that we really get a developed picture of eternal torture.  The Bible itself remains vague.
Today, after centuries of changing theology, doctrine, philosophy and culture, we tend to speak about an eternal soul that either goes to heaven or hell.  Somewhere along the line we stopped talking about waiting until the end of time for a final judgment.  Perhaps waiting that long for a loved one to be at peace proved unsatisfying, just as waiting until the end of time for our enemies to get what we consider to be their just punishment also proved frustrating.  Yet, we are no closer to explaining what really awaits people after death than our spiritual ancestors.  Explaining the meaning of the phrase “what the hell?” is probably an easier task.
A recent book by the delightfully provocative megachurch pastor Rob Bell, Love Wins, has sparked debate about whether hell is real or at least whether God really sends anyone there.  I haven’t read the book, but I’m enjoying watching the charges of heresy fly around.  The debate is not a new one. Christians have long debated whether salvation is universal or particular and whether God elects some for salvation via predestination or if humans choose their own eternal destinies via free will.  Similarly, in Jesus’ day people were debating whether or not there would be a resurrection of the dead.  What strikes me as ironic is how quickly everyone involved in such debates is to condemn their opponents to hell while being so sure of their own salvation. 
I know many would call it blasphemy, but I remain unconvinced there is a hell or at least unsure who will end up there, if anyone.  What I am sure of, however, is that I have experienced a gracious and merciful God who regularly gives each of us more than we deserve on our own merits.  I remain convinced that it is God who holds our souls in God’s hands and it is God who determines what will become of me and others after death.  I believe it is not my limited theology, church membership or so-called good deeds that get me into heaven, but rather it is God’s grace alone that I must depend upon.  So, I will speak, teach, preach and most of all live depending on what I do know rather than upon what I do not—I may not know much for sure about hell, but I do know a God whose grace I dare not underestimate.
Grace and Peace,