Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Problem of Good: Thoughts Upon Finishing the Brothers Karamazov

The sun shone brighter.  The buds on the pollen-laden trees perched like the shadows of so many angels around me.  My children’s laughter peeled sweeter than I have heard it in awhile, and I was able to stand by and smile and laugh with them with a peace of heart I have not felt in forever.
Can a book really do such things?  

Because this meager transfiguration of my world is precisely what occurred as I turned the final page of The Brothers Karamazov yesterday.  And I’m not sure it’s merely because of that joyous final scene around Ilyuesha’s rock, in which Alyosha bids his young friends never to forget one another - a scene that, written by anyone else, would have been cloying, too easy.  This last wave of beauty was not what made me follow St. Peter in desiring to build tents for the mysteries, grasping at them to remain, for, it was indeed good to be in their presence.  
No, not merely beauty, wave after wave of purest, baptizing beauty.  But even more so, truth.  Crash after crash of heart-breaking truth.  And, if such things may be said anymore, also, the sheer goodness that emerges, unbelievably, from the utter darkness of this bundle of dead souls.  Beauty, truth, and goodness.  From Karamazovs?   
I still recall my freshman year college course on the “Problem of Evil.”  I limped to the end of the semester, my faith lacerated, my spirit crushed, by the knowledge of so much suffering in the world.  And then Dr. Larrimore proclaimed the Gospel that still makes this whole faith thing possible for me today.  He turned the tables, offering that the true problem was not of evil, but of good.  Because if we have eyes to see, evil should not be a shock or surprise.  It is the very medium in which we eek out our tragic existence.  We know where evil comes from, even if we cannot speak it.  But good?  Self-sacrifice?  Love?  Whenever and wherever these occur, can we ever truly account for them?  For the French Huguenot village that gave its life for a handful of Jews during the Second World War?  For Ivan Karamazov’s sudden willingness to sacrifice himself for his despised brother Dmitri?  
That, I think, is what makes Dostoevsky’s miracle so miraculous.  When transcendence appears, it is not a deus ex machina, not a sudden salvage operation.  Beauty, truth, and goodness just happen.  Ivan, collector of horror stories about the suffering of children, encounters the devil within himself, and suddenly discovers truth.  Dmitri wrestles with lasciviousness and violence, and only when he is wrongfully accused, arrested, and convicted, does he discover real goodness, in himself and the world.  Katya and Grushenka never quite make it to reconciliation, and yet, we know they will, but only precisely because they do not actually make it the full way yet.  This is a book of planted seeds that are dead and buried.  And yet, unless a grain of wheat falleth and die...
And then there is Alyosha.  I find him the most perplexing character of all.  Because Alyosha, for me, does not seem to change much.  He begins as a budding saint, and ends as one.  He has a momentary crisis of faith when his beloved Elder Zossima dies.  But it is not clear to me that this is not really just grief.  As is said several times, St. Thomas the Doubter did not believe because he saw the Risen Christ, but because he had already made up his mind to believe.  Perhaps what is compelling about Alyosha is that his mind has, in a sense, been made up for him.  Love has no logic.  It is simply there, and can only ripen in the midst of such a storm of sin, seduction and suffering.  
When I was in college, I wrongly believed that, of course, I was Alyosha, the lover of mankind and the hero of the tale.  A hair over a decade later, I still long to be Alyosha.  But I cannot help but think that, in truth, I am Dmitri Karamazov.  I am Kolya Krotsokin.  I am Smerdyakov.  I am Grushenka, and I am Katya.  I am a thread of darkness woven into the tapestry of human self-deception, self-assertion, and self-hatred that shrouds the world in the shadow of suffering.  Like Dmitri, I am a loquacious buffoon and a spend-thrift.  Like Kolya and Ivan, prematurely and insufferably imperious and arrogant.  Like Smerdyakov, bitter and conniving.  Like Grusha, unwilling to forgive, like Katya, insanely jealous.  Like all, desperate for love to come and touch us tenderly, visit me in prison, believe in my goodness, untangle my confusion, speak the truth.  
I am not Alyosha.  But now, I think, I can truly long for Alyosha, and when he comes, in the presence of love that is not cloying but perfect in its naivete, then like Grushenka, I will no longer desire to “eat him up” with malice, but receive him with awe and wonder, begging him to sit upon my lap, able, finally, to see that the world is not darkness at all, but blinding, marvelous light.  The light is coming into the world, and while the world does not receive it, it receives us, and seeks us out, and reveals its presence, deeper than the darkness, at the very heart of our created beings.
There is no doubt in my mind that Terrence Mallick, the writer and director of another great work on suffering and grace, The Tree of Life, found his inspiration from the Brothers Karamazov.  The words of the father’s final, broken confession echo the crucial revelation in the life of Father Zossima: "Yes, there was so much of God's glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and the glory of it all." 
I wonder if, in the end, it is possible to see the glory without first arriving at the dishonor; if grace and truth can be known without Law unveiling our lies.  If the world can be truly transfigured without first being crucified.  If we can truly delight in the laughter of children, the angelic presence hiding in the bursting forth of new life, if resurrection and innocence can truly be miraculous, and not merely cliche and cloying, if we do not face the fact - the Good News! - that indeed, we are not Alyosha, but the world desperately in need of his imperfect perfection.  I think then can we hear his prayer as prayed, not merely for others out there, but receive it, hear it, for us, and for all:  
‎"Lord, have mercy on them all today, unhappy and stormy as they are, preserve and guide them. All ways are yours: save them according to your ways. You are love; you will send joy to all!"
It is the ability to discover such prayers, such people, and our deep need for them, that is the transfiguring majesty of Dostoevsky’s tale of the Karamazov brothers. 

The Tree Of Life: Life's Work from Otto on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cross-Bloggination: Steampunk Theology and the Rev. Nietzsche

Sometime soon, I'll do a proper post on Steampunk.  In the meantime, I've been invited by some fellow Lutheran steampunk geeks to occasionally contribute to their awesome blog, Steampunk Theology.  One trope of steampunk is the imagining of alternative histories, rooted in the Victorian Era.  So, for my first go at things, I've wondered: what if Friedrich Nietzsche, the great ex-Lutheran philosopher, didn't die from his final attack of syphallitic insanity, but instead, went the way of St. Paul, and lived on...what might he say to the church of his time?  Find out at Steampunk Theology! And check out the other interesting stuff there while you're at it!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon: Never Alone, or, Jesus Happens to Death

"Never Alone, or, Jesus Happens to Death"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Fifth Sunday in Lent
25 March 2012

Texts: Jeremiah 31.31-34
Psalm 51.1-12
Hebrews 5.5-10
John 12.20-33

"I never had a felt experience of seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice say, 'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.' I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."
-Martin Luther King, Jr, on his "kitchen table revelation" in Montgomery


***(You can listen to a rough audio-recording via the youtube link at the end of this post! Still working on how to embed audio; thanks for your patience)

-Around holidays when I was a teenager, I’d often “volunteer” to go and play piano at nursing homes. Because nothing says “I’m a good Lutheran boy!” like unenthusiastically pounding out Joy to the World for an incapacitated audience of somebody else’s neglected grandparents?

-I really hated going to the nursing home. Because going to the nursing home meant coming close to the reality of death and dying. And not just any death; but dying, largely, without dignity and without control; dying, alone and forgotten. Dying, even while you are still alive.

-This one time, I was playing at Crest Manor Nursing Home in Fairport, NY. Thankfully, the piano was facing away from the people I was so “graciously serving,” so I could just focus on the music and ignore the moans and groans and strange odors and vacant expressions. Until a bony finger touched my shoulder, and I smelled “old person,” and a trembling voice whispered in my ear, “I gotta get out of here!” My first instinct was to ask, "is the music really that bad?" But what I really wanted to say was, “you and me both buddy.” But I was too terrified, so I just kept playing, heart heavy, back turned.

-So in today’s Gospel, I am so thankful that, in talking about his death, Jesus says, “now my soul is troubled. And what should I say? Father, save me from this hour?” I’m comforted that, even for God Incarnate, the idea of death and dying leaves him tongue-tied and troubled. Leads him to at least contemplate the advice of that old forgotten man at Crest Manor: “I gotta get outta here!”

-And I want to say to him, “Yes Jesus! That’s what you should say! Because Jesus, you’re about to get crucified! You’re headed for a painful, dishonorable, disappointing end. You are going to scream at the top of your lungs, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You are going to die utterly alone. Jesus, for the love of God, say it! Tell the Father: I gotta get outta here!”

-Except were I to say this to Jesus, dear brothers and sisters, you know that I’d really just be talking to myself. I prefer to keep death as far away as possible, whether it’s physical death, or the many forms of spiritual death we face: loss of meaning; loss of security; death of relationships; death of things “the way they’ve always been.” Because death means change. It means the loss of control. It means pain. It means the possibility of ending up alone.

-And all that pretty imagery Jesus usually conjures up, about seeds falling and dying and rising again, it’s all very lovely for a sermon. But when it comes down to living it, I’d really rather just not die. I’m kind of addicted to being alive. I’ll just keep singing my song with my back to the dying, thank you very much.

-Because then, see, I can treat death as something that can be kept at a distance. That can be managed and controlled. It can be avoided. I don’t have to undergo it myself. And while there may be a few of you, like my wife, who are truly able to face the reality of death without fear and spit in its face, I’d wager some of you might share my trepidation.

-No wonder death in the movies or opera or theater is so cathartic for the human audience. We can look, but never have to touch, or be touched. We can be people watching people watching children kill each other in the Hunger Games and feel entertained instead of disturbed. We can "Like" Kony 2012 on Youtube from the safety of our homes and feel like we are saving child soldiers in Africa. White folks in my neighborhood can feel outraged over the murder of Trayvon Martin in faraway Florida, while refusing to show up at the memorial for DeQuan Walker-Smith, 18, who was murdered in broad daylight six blocks away from my house at 29th and Franklin.

-The price we pay for keeping ourselves isolated from death, is very often the isolation and objectification of actual dying people. Which is exactly how the forces of death keep us enslaved to fear.

-But Jesus refuses to isolate himself from death. He actually walks toward it but as he does so His soul is troubled. Jesus has the chance to escape, and of anyone, Jesus has the right. But he doesn’t. Jesus chooses the road that leads directly to the cross. “It is for this reason,” he declares to the adoring crowds, “that I have come to this hour.” To die.

-Furthermore, Jesus claims that this willingness to face and embrace death, this willingness to follow the will of God is a death for the sake of others. Jesus promises that “when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” All people. Jesus promises that his death is not just a cathartic spectacle for our inspiration. Jesus‘ death breaks down the barriers of isolation created by a world bent on avoiding death, and creates the possibility of new community. He does this by his own isolated death, lifted up on the cross, in defiance of the death-denying systems of this world. Jesus dies alone so that no one - no one - will ever face death alone again.

-So deeply is Jesus committed to being involved with us in our death-haunted humanity, seeking such complete solidarity, that he walks with us, all the way to the end. Walks with Trayvon. With DeQuan. With forgotten nursing home guy. With you. And with me.

-And that means, whether we like it or not, we will also be drawn along the path that Jesus himself followed. Whether we like it or not, we too will have to face death, spiritual deaths, relational deaths , and physical deaths. Not just during the 40 days of Lent. But every single day of our Christian lives. As Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “when Jesus calls someone, he bids them come and die.” It’s what it means to be baptized into Christ’s death. It means death is no longer an optional part of new life.

-And we will have no control over this. Like a dead seed, we don’t get to decide what our deaths do, or even which deaths we'll face. Undergoing any kind of death is no guarantee that we will see the new life that springs up from within us. Knowing the love of Jesus is no guarantee of security. If anything, knowing Jesus pretty much guarantees the opposite. We are called to have souls that are also troubled by death, and the world of isolation and fear that death creates.

-But brothers and sisters, Christ promises this. Christ promises that his death will draw all of us into the dark places of death in the world. Our deaths have been taken up and hidden in the paschal mystery of death and resurrection. See, death will happen to us, but Jesus has also happened to death. And when we face death, Jesus promises to be there. We walk the way towards death. But always, Jesus walks with us. Because he promises: “where I am, there my servant will also be.”

-Which makes me wonder about that old bony finger that touched my shoulder back in the nursing home. Maybe it wasn’t actually the hand of death. Maybe it was the hand of Christ, reaching out from among the dying, urging me: you gotta get outta here. Out of the isolation you’ve created around you. Out of fear and avoidance. The only way through this death is through it. So turn and face us. And turning, see the face of Jesus, and look through the eyes of the monster into the eyes of the promise. That God has entered death and created new life. That in us outcasts, suffering, dying and alone, Christ bids you join us, bids you come and die. Let us be the promise for one another, the promise that Jesus walks with the dying. And, in walking together, let us find that, in Christ, together, we never walk alone.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sermon: Only the Jealous God

"Only the Jealous God"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Third Sunday in Lent
11 March 2012

Texts: Exodus 20.1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
John 2.13-22

"Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
and all our youth and beauty, its been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you're burning down the clock
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots..."
-Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball"


-Incarnation. Celebration. Romance. Revolution. The opening chapters of St. John's Gospel have more thrills a 19th century Vaudevillian Spectacular Spectacular. Sign me up please!

-How can we not be compelled by John's portrait of Jesus? His mystic incarnational origins. His first miracle of amping up the party - also known as turning water into wine. And the indignant protest of corruption in the Temple, ripping through injustice and greed like an arena full of people singing a Springsteen anthem. It just appeals to the “true Bohemian Revolutionary” I am sure is hiding somewhere deep – ok, very deep – inside my soul.

-But then I wonder if such romanticizing is an exercise in missing the point. It’s too easy. Too much like wish fulfillment or projection. Because Jesus is not just a progressive with a compelling social program, or a nice man working miracles, hugging little children, and touching the untouchables. He’s not some Christian bookstore version of radical that we can commodify into another top-10 bestseller during election season. He's not a Republican. Oh, and by the way, he's definitely not a Democrat either.

-He’s also not, as far as I can tell, offering us a paradigm for street theatre or activist action. Believe me, many have thought so. I’m reminded of a story I heard in the Lutheran Peace Fellowship about certain opponents of Aparthied in South Africa, who, committed to non-violence against humans, saw no problem in emulating Jesus’ “Occupy the Temple Campaign.” So, following Jesus, they made their own whips of chords, attaching chains to the front of a prominent racist’s car dealership and pulling it down with their pick-up trucks. Allegedly, no humans were harmed in the making of this production. What’s the destruction of property and a person’s livelihood between sinners when justice is at stake, right? Oh, and if you don't have a pickup truck, I'm sure your Facebook profile will do just nicely.

-But see, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is up to here. He’s not striking a revolutionary pose so he can be made into a black and red Che Guevara t-shirt. And I don’t think he’s looking for imitators – at least, not in the way the South African activists imagined. No, I think he’s up to something else here. Something not so easily captured or commodified.

-And in some ways, that's good news for me. Because I'm less like revolutionary Jesus. More like my namesake, the Apostle Matthew, who started out a tax collector. An accountant. Caesar's certified CPA. If I'm honest with myself, I'm not backing up Jesus' temple raid. I don't have that kind of heart. I'm the one whose table got turned over.

-And see, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even the most radical, progressive Christians of today are, at heart, no different than money changers in the temple. Becasue if the Savior knocks over the tables of those we deem oppressors, how long until we swoop in under the cover of righteous indignation and rage, and set up our own systems of accounting? It's easy to feel totally justified in being “just like Jesus” – and turning our ire back upon those intolerant backwoods fundamentalists and conservatives, the robber barons who make up the 1%. Or those unloving parents, or those hate-mongering pastors, or any of the unfaithful who have put God in a box. So of course, that box must be shattered and destroyed – so that we can put God in a much bigger box, a wider tent, a more expansive narrative. That is, in the end, still a box. Or, a money changer's table.

-But All our attempts to play God – even the God of peace and justice , prophetically raging against corruption - are, in the end, mostly just calculations in an accountant’s ledger book. Just coins clinking in the collect's coffers. Aimed at preserving and peddling the romanticized versions of ourselves that keep us going, while protecting us from the fact that God is, decidedly, not like us.

-We just don’t have the heart for it, you see. For such a revolution. That’s what the First Commandment, part of our first reading today, is trying to show us. See, long ago on Mt. Sinai, God tells the Israelites, “you shall have no other gods before me…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” And that word in the Hebrew text, that “jealousy,” is the same word John uses to describe Jesus’ raging against our machines, when he says that “zeal for your house shall consume me.” Zeal and jealousy are the same word. God will accept nothing less than our undivided love. God does not want our revolutions; God wants our hearts.

-And see, the “house” that Jesus comes to cleanse, it is literally the temple. But it’s also “house” in the sense that Gryffindor and Slytherin are houses. It is a gathered people, a kind of family. It’s us. Jesus, as the Incarnation of the God of Israel, is a jealous Savior. And he is jealous for the love of his people, this people here. And God’s uncontrollable, jealous, zealous love will not tolerate idolatry, whether it be a golden calf, or a collection of golden ideals – progressive, conservative, or otherwise – that presume to act as go-beteweens in God’s desire to love us, freely and without limits.

-Now, I understand that this notion of a jealous God can seem just as bad as the Che Guevara Jesus. For me, it can make God seem like the muscle-bound, varsity jacket wearing, hot-rod driving jock who bullies the nerdy kid, “stay away from my girl” before dropping him in a dumpster. Do we really want a God that is so passionate, so given to jealousy and rage?

-But then there is the story of Jeremy, one of the young men I had the privilege to mentor as part of the Duke Youth Academy. The other youth were decidedly uncomfortable with Israel’s jealous God. But then Jeremy, awkward, and reserved, suddenly spoke: “I love that God is jealous. Because he’s jealous for me. Which means he will fight for me. And that makes me feel so loved. Because no one has ever fought for me before.”

-This God, this Jesus, is not like us, in justice or in jealousy - easy as it is to forget. And there is no other God worth following, no other God that is Good News and Gospel, except the jealous, unpredictable God. This God does not come to bring revolution alone, but comes to fight for us, to stop at nothing until He has gathered us into His house. Made us into a living temple for the Spirit. Given us a new heart. Whether we like it or not.

-See, this God comes to bring a consuming fire. This God comes to break to pieces our calculating and idealizing hearts of stone, and this God, in Jesus Christ, goes to the cross, dies at our hands, and rebuilds the temple of His own body in three days, so that we too might be rebuilt. That we might be given new hearts. Hearts capable of returning God’s jealous love with passion, truth and zeal. And so also truly love our neighbors. God speaks a resolute NO! over our corruption, our idols, and our good intentions. But only so that God can speak a more powerful YES to us, God’s beloved children, foolish, though we be.

-Confrontation with the Jealous God is not always pleasant. Christ's revelation in the temple is more like that scene from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, when Bilbo, under the sway of the ring of power, accuses the wizard Gandalf of trying to rob him. Gandalf rears up in fire and shadow, proclaiming, “do not take me for a conjurer of cheap tricks! I’m not trying to rob you! I’m trying to help you!” Or, as Mr. Beaver says of C.S. Lewis' Aaslan, "he's not safe...but he's good."

-God in Christ kicks over our tables. But the Good News is, we don’t have to be accountants anymore. You are free, not to manage grace, but only to receive it. You are re-created, not to have to earn or fear God’s jealous love, but simply to be loved, and to be God’s beloved. You do not have to become a revolutionary; you are already the object of God's passion, and the deep desire of God's heart.

-That’s the romance. That’s the revolution. Sign me up for that.