April 23rd, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 23, 2017, the first Sunday after Easter.
Texts: Psalm 126, Genesis 18:1-2, 9-15
There is a sculpture that has inspired and encouraged me for years. It has been in my pastor’s study—often on my desk—since I received it as a gift from my mother. It has become a profound symbol for me of something deeply important in the spiritual life. The sculpture is of a laughing pig. The pig is on its back, its two front hooves holding its round belly, mouth wide open in laughter. Michelangelo’s “Pieta” gets all the attention as a masterpiece of Christian art, but I think the sculptor of “The Laughing Pig” should get more accolade. For me it’s a sacred icon of earthy joy. I find it impossible to look at the giggling swine without feeling a shift in my spirit—a lightening up.
Laughter doesn’t often get its due in Christian settings. In an attempt to be faithful, we can become awfully intense, we can take ourselves very seriously, we can—as I try to regularly remind us—begin to feel responsible for every single problem and broken place in the world. And that’s a heavy load to carry. But as we enter this Easter season, the story we tell is that God’s love and mercy are the powers that can—and DO—bring about resurrection and transformation in the world. We get to share in the work of new creation that God is always busy with—but we are not God! Lightening up doesn’t mean we aren’t taking our responsibilities seriously—but rather that we have proper perspective. That is good news if I’ve ever heard it! I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of this good news all the time. I need constant reminders to lighten up!
One way the ancient church helped people claim and experience the good news of Easter was through a custom, dating back to the early centuries of Christianity in Greece, in which the days after Easter were celebrated as days of joy and laughter with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus resurrection. Over the centuries, playing practical jokes on each other, dancing, laughing, and generally having fun together have all been part of the celebration. Over the past thirty to forty years, some churches in America have reclaimed this practice, calling the Sunday after Easter, “Holy Humor Sunday.”
The custom is based on the reflections of early church theologians like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom who mused that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. They referred to this as “Risus paschalis—the Easter laugh.”[i] Growing up, I observed my dad’s family delight in trying to one-up each other with practical jokes. I love the thought of God being the original trickster. No one’s going to one-up God—God gets the last laugh!
I have a running debate with a close friend about Jesus on this point. My friend tends to think that Jesus was too concerned with the great cosmic struggle between good and evil and the deeply bruising earthly struggle against greed and injustice to spend much time joking around or laughing. I, on the other hand, am convinced that all those children wouldn’t want to be near Jesus if he didn’t laugh and play; everyone wanted Jesus to join their dinner parties—and he spent time with folks who knew how to have a good time; and, though in translation it’s sometimes hard to recognize, some of Jesus’s parables are deeply funny. All this is to say, I think Jesus laughed. A lot. And the more I learn about laughter, the more convinced I am of that.
Laughter is scientifically proven to have healing effects on our physical and mental health. It boosts our immune system, relieves muscle tension and stress, and causes the brain to release “endorphins, interferon-gamma (IFN), and serotonin. These are nature’s own feel good chemicals and are responsible for helping to keep your mood uplifted.”[ii] Studies out of Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic (among others) confirm that “Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh.”[iii] In other words, laughter is good medicine when you’re stressed, ill, or discouraged.
I imagine all of us can think of a time when we were in the midst of a deep struggle or right in the middle of grief and found ourselves laughing with others—and in those moments felt at least a moment of relief. There is deep folk wisdom in the phrase “sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying!” That might be going on in our story today from Genesis when Sarah overhears the messengers prophesy that she will get pregnant. She had lived her long years unable to become pregnant. And in the culture of the time, to be childless was a tragedy and disgrace. Sarah had reason to cry. But she laughed! Did she laugh to keep from crying—to ward off the temptation to hope and, yet again, have those hopes dashed? Or did she laugh simply because the whole idea was ridiculous—since she and Abraham were not exactly in the habit of acting like newlyweds anymore and her body’s monthly cycles had long ceased? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I’m struck by her denial out of fear—evidently she sensed she wasn’t supposed to laugh. And that makes me think of all the times I get the giggles in the most inappropriate moments. There was a serious conversation going on between Abraham and some Very Important People. And Sarah gets tickled. I can relate. J
In one study I consulted, I read that “Laughter allows us to entertain the absurd and imagine alternate possibilities.”[iv] Spiritual writer, Carolyn Arends, sees that happening in Sarah’s story: “Consider the laughter of…Sarah, blossoming from incredulity into incredible joy. When Sarah had a baby at long, impossible last, she named him Isaac—which means, of course, ‘laughter.’” Arends goes on to say, “laughter belongs to the world of wind, or Spirit—unexpected joy arrives on the gust of a fresh current and carries us to a different place from the one where it found us.”[v]
I’ve mentioned some of the many places that laughter can carry us from: physical tension and stress, over-responsibility, disappointment, grief, taking ourselves too seriously, lack of perspective. Christian writer and essayist, Anne Lamott, speaks to some of this saying, “Humor and laughter and silliness and giggles can get into some dark, walled-off places inside us and bring breath and lightness…When I am at my most stressed, I sometimes lose my sense of humor, and that condition is just a nightmare…For me, hell is when I’m absolutely stuck in self-obsession, this terrible, terrible self-consciousness. The healing and grace often comes from being put back together by people… [who] somehow help me lighten up and get my sense of humor back. When I have my sense of humor back, nothing can stop me.” Lamott describes humor and laughter as “carbonated holiness.”[vi] // I love that way of thinking about the gift of laughter. As a bubbly, refreshing drink of God’s grace, as the thing that is always available to us, just waiting to nourish and renew us body and soul. “A good laugh is a release—even if only for a moment—from worry, strife, and self. It is a sudden, often unbidden confession that someway, somehow, all is well, or at least there is a hope that it can be.”[vii] Carbonated holiness…grace…laughter. With such a beautiful healing gift always extended, why not take advantage of it as much as humanly possible?
I can’t remember who wrote it, but someone once said that Christians should look more redeemed. That is, the good news of God’s love, mercy, and resurrection power should lead us to rejoice, to laugh and be glad! And, even if you don’t necessarily identify as Christian or can’t get down with the whole God thing or resurrection thing, laughter is proven to be good for you. There is almost no downside to it—though Woody Allen mentions one saying, “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” Aside from that, laughter is just good. So, what are some ways that we can cultivate laughter in our lives? Here is a pretty good guide I found:
“Begin by setting aside special times to seek out humor and laughter, as you might with working out, and build from there. Some ways to start:
Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter and like laughter, it’s contagious. When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling. Instead of looking down at your phone, look up and smile at people you pass in the street, the person serving you a morning coffee, or the co-workers you share an elevator with. Notice the effect this has on others.
Count your blessings. Literally make a list. The simple act of considering the good things in your life will distance you from negative thoughts that are a barrier to humor and laughter…
Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily–both at themselves and at life’s absurdities–and who routinely find the humor in everyday events. Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious.
Bring humor into conversations. Ask people, ‘What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today? This week? In your life?’”[viii]
There are so many other ways to imbibe carbonated holiness:
- Watch a funny movie, TV show, or YouTube video
- Invite friends or co-workers to go to a comedy club
- Read the funny pages
- Share a good joke or a funny story
- Check out your bookstore’s humor section
- Host game night with friends
- Play with a pet
- Goof around with children
- Do something silly
- Make time for fun activities (e.g. bowling, miniature golfing, karaoke)”[ix]
As we move through this “Soul Food” series, I hope that we’ll all make sure to give ourselves a heaping portion of laughter. Let this time be an opportunity to more intentionally seek out laughter in your life; so that it becomes part of your regular spiritual diet, nourishing you for the long haul as we continue to attend to the serious work of sacred resistance and intentional community. Drink in the “carbonated holiness” that can refresh and renew! St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order once remarked to a novice, “I see you are always laughing, and I am glad of it.” Ignatius also “once danced a jig to cheer up downcast Jesuits. He was a man whose joy was known to be full.” So much so that the phrase, “Laugh and grow strong” is often attributed to him.[x]
Laugh and grow strong, friends. Imbibe some carbonated holiness. Find your laughing pig and keep it ever before you!
[v] Carolyn Arends, “Carbonated Holiness: Laughter is Serious Business,” Christianity Today, “Wrestling with Angels” column, April 2008. Accessed at: https://renovare.org/articles/carbonated-holiness
[vi] Anne Lamott, “Anne Lamott: The Habit of Practice,” https://www.faithandleadership.com/anne-lamott-habit-practice
[vii] Carolyn Arends
April 16th, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday.
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
Let’s talk about the position description for God’s angels, shall we? What are the essential functions of this role? I bring this up because it seems there is a pretty radical deviation in performance among the heavenly host. Last year, we read the Easter story as it’s recorded in John. I found myself aggravated by the two angels in that account who just sit there in the empty tomb, the only words out of their mouths to ask Mary Magdalene why she’s crying. If, as I believe is correct, an angel is supposed to be a messenger, then I’m unclear just what message John’s envoys are trying to communicate. But how about this angel in Matthew?! This one is awesome. First off, there’s no way you’re going to miss this messenger who arrives fashionably late—after the Marys are at the tomb—and then doesn’t saunter in, but flies in wearing a cape with pyrotechnics—earthquake and lightning. This angel is one of those buff angels, and gets busy making short work of that big stone—clearly no fuss, no muss, since when the job is done the angelic cape is still white as snow. Then the angel plops down with what I imagine is not a little attitude—Maxine Waters-style—as if to say, “See what I did there?” Nary a word or glance directed to the guards who have passed out in fear—who has time for that nonsense? The focus is elsewhere by then. Because this angel is there to deliver a message: SuperAngel turns to Mary Magdalene and to the other Mary (likely Jesus’s momma) and speaks to them with such care and clarity: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” Now that is some good reporting right there. That’s my kinda angel.
Every part of the message is important, intentional, direct, and clear. There is little room for misunderstanding and little need for interpretation. This is the news and it is good and it’s clear what is to be done next. The women set out, feeling joyful though still afraid—after all, the authorities killed Jesus only days before and they still haven’t actually seen him. As they go, Jesus comes to them, assures them they don’t need to be afraid, and confirms their mission: go and tell the truth! If you read to the end of the story, you will see that the disciples and Jesus do meet up in Galilee and when they see Jesus, they worship him—“but some doubted.” (Mt 28:17) Some doubted. Doubt—to wrestle and push back on things as we seek understanding and integration—is a healthy part of spiritual life. I would never discount that process.
What I wonder is: having received such a clear message, what did some doubt and why? Did they doubt Jesus’ intentions for them? After all, in those days, violent revenge was not uncommon –and they’d all deserted Jesus in his hour of need. (Mt 26:56) Did they doubt whether it would be worth it to continue following in Jesus’s way? After all, Jesus’s way got him into all sorts of trouble and put him on a cross. Or did they doubt whether they were really seeing a resurrected Jesus? How could they doubt that, though, when the truth was staring them right in the face?
Well, Matthew’s account of things includes some interesting context. After Jesus was buried, the authorities set a guard at the tomb to keep it “secure.” (This could have been up to 50 soldiers if it was a Roman guard—but certainly more than a few.) The fear is that Jesus’s disciples will steal the body and then claim resurrection. (Mt 27:63-66) As we heard in the reading, the members of the guard were evidently no match for SuperAngel and, after they recover from that experience, some of their number go and make a report of what happened to the powers that be. And the powers decide to bribe the soldiers—to give them “a large sum” of money to get them to lie and say that the disciples came and stole the body of Jesus while the guard slept. They also promise to protect the guard from getting in trouble with the Roman Governor for being bested by Maxine Waters (Mt 28:13-14). Matthew—the only Gospel writer who mentions this business with the guard at the tomb—is certainly responding to a debate in Jewish-Christian relations at the time the story was written; and I don’t need or want to debate the historicity of Matthew’s details this morning.
What I do want to highlight is that Matthew—in telling the story this way—gives us an early prototype for the employment of “alternative facts.” We’ve got serious spin going on here by those in power. Even if the details of Matthew’s account aren’t technically historical, it is clear that the story captures something very real and very human—it is just so familiar. Trusted authority figures using money to manipulate people and distort reality; power players assuring that the falsehood is repeated again and again so that it becomes possible to begin to doubt your own perception of things… “I thought he was really dead…” “I didn’t steal the body, but maybe one of the others did and just aren’t saying…” Some doubted…
What Matthew’s Easter account with all its backroom dealing does for us is highlight a central feature of the whole story of Jesus: the message of God’s Kin-dom is absolutely counter to the message of the existing power structures. This has been a central theme for us throughout the season of Lent and on this day of all days the dueling forces vying for our love and allegiance face off once and for all.
The powers of this broken world spin and tweet and scheme and bribe and deceive to secure their own sense of safety and power and privilege. From age to age the message circulated by the empires of this world is that we need to be afraid. We need to be afraid of each other. We need to be afraid of losing wealth, privilege, control. We need to be afraid of the unknown, to be afraid of pain, to be afraid of difference, to be afraid of failure. We need to be afraid of death.
The message circulated by empire is that the only way to be safe is through violence, through criminalizing immigrants, through executing people, through blaming the oppressed for their suffering, through promoting racist “law and order,” through dropping the “mother of all bombs.” The message circulated by the powers and principalities is that, to be safe, you need them, that you will be OK if you just give them a chance, if you don’t question where the money is going—or not going, if you just go about your daily business and don’t get involved, if you don’t push back when you begin to think, “there’s something wrong with this picture,” if you surrender to the notion that you can’t make any difference so why bother… The message circulated by existing power players is: be afraid, be as good as dead, be scared to death.
This message is easy to believe because we know we’re vulnerable… and we often feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. We have created and sustained a noisy world full of rattling sabers and semiautomatic weapons, a country in which so-called “deaths of despair”—deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide—are on the rise in response “a measurable deterioration in economic and social wellbeing.”[i] We have created and sustained a nation cluttered with death-dealing policies that deny access to healthcare, voting booths, affordable housing, and clean drinking water, a world polluted with racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and xenophobia. The thoughtless effects of our lack of care for the planet threaten life of all kinds. We’ve made a mess of our world. And in this country these days, those who try to name the truth are mocked and maligned. “Alternative facts” has somehow become a thing—and the messages we hear from our leaders change with the wind, often have no relation to reality, and sow chaos and confusion; so much so that Time magazine recently asked the question on their cover, “Is Truth Dead?”[ii] It is easy to believe the message that resistance is futile and that we should be scared to death.
It is easy. But it is not the only option. There is another message. A counter proposal. And it rises up today proclaiming this: you can’t kill Truth. And I’m not talking about facts and data, though those things are certainly true in the lowercase kind of way. I’m talking about the capital “T” Truth who is not an idea that can be spun by little men with their trumped up schemes; I’m talking about the person in whom God’s never-changing Word of love is eternally expressed—who even when beaten and crucified loves and forgives to bring about new creation after new creation. I’m talking about the Truth who shows us the way, the Truth who is our life, the Truth who is God’s steadfast love. I’m talking about the Truth who takes up residence in the middle of our mess, who meets us in our grief, who goes ahead to blaze our path, who gathers us up when we are weak, who gives courage in our struggle, who speaks peace in times of trial. I’m talking about the Truth whose ways are just and merciful and whose presence is assured. You can’t kill Truth! And even when you think you have, Truth is gonna rise on the third day.
Counter to the fear-mongering messages of the world, Jesus gently proclaims that we don’t have to be scared—but if we are, God is with us. Jesus proclaims this to us from the other side of the grave. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. God is with us. World without end.
There is an image that has grown in power for me over the years of being married to a Catholic and praying every year with the Jesuits. It is the icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a picture of Jesus with his physical heart literally outside his body. Sometimes the icon shows Jesus’s heart lit up like a neon sign, other times it is on fire, always it is encircled with a crown of thorns. The icon represents Jesus’ divine love for humanity. I am moved by the thought that Jesus makes his heart so vulnerable and exposed. My favorite rendering has Jesus holding his heart as though to hand it over to anyone who asks… This is the image for me of what “sacred” means. Jesus, God’s sacred heart, gives himself to the world in love and without defense—knowing full well what we will do to so vulnerable a gift. God offers us this love, offers you this perfect love, a love that is steadfast, that never changes, a love that has the power to cast out fear (1 Jn 4:18) and to set us free.
In the face of all the challenges of our day, in the midst of crazy-making spin, injustice, temptation to idolatry, and paralyzing fear, we here at Foundry are determined to resist; and we call our resistance “sacred.” Today we are all reminded that we don’t have to be afraid of all that threatens, but when we are, Christ is with us. We are reminded that there is life on the other side of death and loss and pain and grief. We are reminded that we are called to keep moving forward, following the path blazed by Christ who has gone ahead of us. We are reminded that, as we go, we will see Christ. We are reminded that the forces of deception and fear and chaos and death are no match for the God who is with us. They sent armed guards who trembled and fell. They threw around their money to shut the story down, but here we are, proclaiming it still. They sealed the stone to lock love up but on this resurrection morning those prison bars are shattered and love roams free. They struck down the tender sacred heart but Christ rose up to offer it again. Every time they knock God down, Spirit rises up, Word rises up, love rises up, Truth rises up. They tried to kill the truth—but my friends… they can’t handle the Truth!
The gentle, loving, steadfast Truth takes us by the hand today, to help us rise up, to help us offer our hearts to the world, to help us live. Thanks be to God!
[i] Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/mortality-and-morbidity-in-the-21st-century/
April 14th, 2017
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, 12:00 noon, April 14, 2017, Good Friday.
Text: John 18:1-19:42
What happened on this day all those years ago? I know we just heard the story. We know that Jesus was betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked, crucified. But why? One of the oldest answers to that question is explained like this: human beings were like inmates in a prison of sin. There was no way we could get ourselves out. So God sent Jesus to be our bail. Jesus gives his life to cash in ours. He dies, we go free. There are lots of reasons this has been such a common explanation for centuries. It resonates with the story of Passover and the sacrificial lamb whose life is given in order to save the lives of God’s people. (Ex 12:1-13) The so-called substitutionary atonement theory of the cross makes sense insofar as we know that there is damage we have done in our lives that can’t ever be fully repaired, that there are human messes to which we have contributed, messes that are beyond our capacity to clean up. In other words, the price is too much to redeem what has been done—we don’t have what it takes. Only God does. The bail-out theology of the cross handles this quite well.
I will grant that God is the only one who can save us and redeem this beautiful broken world. But I take issue with the idea that the God who is love and mercy would be so cruel as to sacrifice the beloved son when divine mercy had spared Abraham and Isaac from so brutal a scene centuries before. I simply don’t believe that God would intentionally add violence, brutality, and injustice to a world God labors to save from all those things. It seems to me that the God of love and mercy will not be a blood-thirsty God who requires the blood of Jesus to let everyone off the hook. After all, our God is the God of whom the Psalmist writes: “you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:16-17)
So what happened on this day all those years ago if it was not a cosmic payoff? Jesus, the embodiment of God’s grace and mercy, the embodiment of God’s love and justice, gave up his life instead of giving in to the powers that wanted him to conform, to be quiet, to go away, to stop protesting. Jesus gave up his life instead of giving up his solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Jesus was innocent of any crime, innocent as a child, innocent as a lamb. And on this day, the beloved child whose only crime was telling the truth was executed by the state. On this day, the gentle lamb was slain.
How can this great tragedy have any good in it? What possible positive difference can such an outrage bring? To say “Jesus died for our sakes” or “Jesus died for you” is not to say that Jesus is your “get out of jail free” card, but rather to say that Jesus died for love of you, because he wouldn’t forsake you. Jesus died out of love for you and a desire that you should have abundant life. Jesus died out of a love for you that led him to courageously stand up to all the things of this world that would do you harm, that poison your mind, that harden your heart, that tempt you to worship idols that steal your life. Because of Jesus’s love for us, he didn’t back down from what threatens us even when he knew it would cost his life.
What happened on this day all those years ago is that Jesus becomes the ultimate witness, the one who shows us what it looks like to be truly and fully human as God intends. Jesus bears witness to love, bears witness to courage, bears witness to mercy, forgiveness, patience, compassion. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be a real friend, to have integrity, to do what is right even when it means risking everything. That kind of witness is literally life-giving. Fr. Oscar Romero was a Catholic priest in El Salvador who tirelessly spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. In 1980, Romero was assassinated while offering Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence. The people who experienced the way that Fr. Romero lived and died were changed by his witness. They knew he loved them, that he cared for them, that he was willing to risk everything for them. I read that one of the peasants reflecting on Romero’s impact, simply said, “Before we were not, now we are.”
What happened on this day all those years ago is that Jesus, the ultimate witness, shows us perfect love and faithfulness, and—if we are willing to look—we see our capacity to follow in Jesus’s way, to come alive in a new way, to be truly human. And, as we are likely painfully aware, if we are willing to really look at Jesus on the cross we also see our capacity to be less than fully human, to be inhuman. As we look at Jesus on the cross, we are forced to witness the effects of our failure to love and to have compassion. We are forced to reckon with our complicity in cross-building and torture, forced to reckon with the hardness of our own hearts, to reckon with the ways that our self-interest and idol-worship distract us from doing what is right and the ways we allow innocent people to be slaughtered while we are busy making our plans…
In the thirteenth century, Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk and theologian wrote this prayer: “O Lord…show us what kind of man it is who is hanging for our sakes on the cross, whose suffering causes the rocks themselves to crack and crumble with compassion, whose death brings the dead back to life. Let my heart crack and crumble at the sight of him. Let my soul break apart with compassion for his suffering. Let it be shattered with grief at my sins for which he dies. And finally let it be softened with devoted love for him.”[i]
What happened on this day all those years ago is that Jesus gives us the opportunity to look, to see perfect love crucified by human fear, greed, cruelty, and corruption. And, as we look, to be changed, to have our hearts “crack and crumble.” A cracked and crumbled heart is a “broken and contrite heart” and that, God will not despise…
When our hearts are broken open and we witness true love in this life, when we witness self-giving courage, when we witness loyalty and solidarity and true strength in humility, when someone stands up for us or fights for us or sacrifices for us, something happens to us. We are changed. We see that we matter, that we are, that we are loved. And when we look at Jesus on the cross we see that we are loved even when we are the ones responsible for his suffering. And we are forgiven and given the chance to change. We are given the opportunity to grow in love and compassion and live the life we are made for. We are redeemed. We are set free.
[i] Bonaventura 1217-74, The Tree of Life, ed. Eward Cousins, Classics of Western Christianity, SPCK
quoted from 2,000 Years of Prayer, compiled by Michael Counsell. http://edgeofenclosure.org/passion2.html
April 13th, 2017
This meditation was preached by Executive Pastor Dawn M. Hand at the Maundy Thursday service, April 13, 2017.
April 9th, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday.
Text: Matthew 21:1-17
Blood…Money…As I sat down to the computer to write today’s sermon, I found myself staring at the screen and the title I chose months ago: “Blood Money.” And I got to thinking about how those two words have been so closely related throughout human history. I couldn’t help but think about this past week’s history and the fact that the U.S. bombed Syria on Thursday—a not-new occurrence by the way (the U.S. dropped more than 12,000 bombs in Syria in 2016 according to the Council on Foreign Relations[i]). I thought about how—in the wake of an attack—ad revenues lead news agencies to become purveyors of what one writer described as “weapon porn,”[ii] showing image after image of weapons and violence—images that inspired a prominent reporter to describe the “flight” of Tomahawk missiles as “beautiful.”[iii] I thought about the fact that the company who produces those bombs gets a healthy bump in market gains as a result of all that praise and free advertising.[iv] I thought about the line about oil prices I read in MarketWatch: “Prices often gain when tensions rise in the Middle East, where almost 40% of the world’s crude oil is produced.”[v] All of this is to say that blood is a money-maker. Blood money.
This is nothing new. Wars have fueled economies for centuries; people will line up and pay plenty to see a “good” fight—flashback to the iconic scene in the movie “Gladiator” when, at the end of a particularly bloody battle, Russell Crowe challenges the crowd saying “Are you not entertained?!” Blood sells. And—God help us—flesh and blood sells. Slavery and sex trafficking (missing DC kids!) and black market transactions and prisons for profit prove that money and blood are intertwined in disturbing, death-dealing ways.
Money doesn’t have to be so tainted, however. In fact, money, in and of itself, is value-free. Money can be (and often is) used to accomplish extraordinary good. It is only when we become seduced by money and, therefore, willing to sell our soul—and, in extreme cases, the bodies and lives of other people—in order to get more of it that it becomes a problem.
Throughout this Lent we have been naming some of the American idols that tempt our hearts, those realities of American culture that make it difficult to be a true follower of Jesus.
The idol we confess today isn’t difficult to see all around us in America: it is the idol of wealth, the god of the bottom line. This god is an old god, an idol long revered across many continents and cultures. And it took up residence early in American history. Alexis de Tocqueville, French political philosopher, historian, and author of Democracy in America, wrote a letter in 1831 in which he said, “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”[vi]
I don’t intend to argue for or against free market capitalism or any other system of commerce today since, as mentioned last week, economics is not my area of expertise! But as those who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, it is important to recognize that a possible pitfall in our culture is to be tempted to give our heart to the God of the bottom line, to fall in love with the idol of wealth.
The tendency in America is to make everything transactional, for everything to become a product to be sold and everyone a potential consumer of products, a datapoint for a certain demographic. Everything is fair game, and the more emotional or controversial, the better potential advertising can be. This past week we witnessed a Pepsi ad trivialize and coopt “the politics of protest, particularly as [those politics] surround race relations in America today.” But as one article suggests, “Before it’s an ad for shampoo or cat food or cola, every advertisement is first an ad for capitalism.” The author goes on to say the point of the Pepsi ad was “to put the consumer in a more important role than the citizen…to position Pepsi as a facilitator in the utopian dream of pure, color-blind consumerism that might someday replace politics entirely…” to offer “a hypothetical resolution to politics by a more powerful force in America—consumer capitalism.”[vii]
I don’t know why I was so startled by reading those lines. After all, I know how powerful the god of the almighty dollar can be—and why wouldn’t that god want to become all-consuming by making “consumer capitalism” the most powerful force in America? But I am just idealistic enough to still be caught off-guard and outraged by such a statement—and I’m determined to tell the truth: When the life and death struggle for justice is co-opted for the purpose of branding a beverage to potentially increase someone’s bottom line, that is sin. And any profit is blood money.
William Sloane Coffin once said that economics are “politics in disguise.”[viii] And we know (don’t we?) that budgets are moral documents. We know that wherever our treasure is, our heart is too. We know that Jesus was clear from the beginning that he came to preach good news not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor.
And Palm Sunday is a day when Jesus rides into the streets and halls of power to face-off with the moneyed interests. Jesus comes not in a limo, but on the back of a donkey. And the story is that Jesus parked his donkey at the Temple—the center of both religious and economic life, the power center of Jerusalem. Scholars debate whether the scene with the moneychangers ever actually happened; archaeological evidence and what we know of the way the Temple economy worked suggests that what we often see depicted in art as a room with some tables in it was actually a vast area covering many acres, bustling with thousands of people. There was no way Jesus could have overturned all those tables! But as is often the case with scripture, there is a kernel of history here surrounded by a story meant to capture the heart of what actually happened. It’s like a novel getting turned into a screenplay—you have to edit and even create some new details in order to capture—in a smaller frame—the full, true story. The presenting issue in this case wasn’t necessarily that the moneychangers themselves were doing something wrong. One scholar points out that “Nobody was stealing or defrauding or contaminating the sacred precincts. These activities were the absolutely necessary concomitants of the fiscal basis and sacrificial purpose of the Temple.”[ix] Rather, it is likely that Jesus was employing the prophetic tradition to do a very public, symbolic “sign” to make a larger point. Jesus’s sign was to “overturn tables”—and that was only the beginning of his critique.
In the days between this moment and his death, Jesus continually teaches in the Temple and takes the Temple leaders to task. Jesus calls out those in power for tying “up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on the shoulders of others” but not being willing to “lift a finger” themselves to help (Mt 23:4). Jesus zeroes in on the way that those with money and power throw their weight around to get special treatment at all the trendy spots and ignore matters of justice and mercy and faith. (Mt 23:6-7, 23) The “moneychangers” are at the center of the current system, changing money from foreign pilgrims so that they could purchase the various animals used for blood sacrifices in Temple ritual. And “those who sold doves” were taking the money of the poor, because doves were the sacrifices of the poor (Lev 5:7). These represent “the way things are,” the status quo. And Jesus is having none of this system in which every transaction is to the benefit of those with wealth and power and to the detriment of the poor. That is what Jesus comes to overturn: the injustice of whole system.
The new economy is made plain in Jesus’s words recorded in Matthew 25: whoever is hungry is fed, whoever thirsty is given a drink, the stranger is welcomed, the naked clothed, the sick and imprisoned visited and cared for. In the economy of God’s Kin-dom you don’t make life harder for the poor; you don’t blame them for their suffering; you don’t mock them by suggesting they make the hard decision to give up their iPhone so that they can pay for healthcare when you yourself make a $174,000 base salary and enjoy high-end healthcare provided by the government.[x] (Ok, that part isn’t exactly in the Bible…).
I wonder where Jesus would park his donkey were he to ride into Washington, DC today. The Mayor’s office? The White House? The Capitol? K Street? Our own back doors? What words would Jesus have for us? Do those in positions of power lay heavy burdens on the backs of others but do nothing to help? Do the wealthy and powerful take advantage of their privileges to get special treatment and gain more wealth? Do our leaders attend to matters of justice and mercy and faith? Do we?
In the biblical tradition, blood symbolizes life. Where we invest—or withhold our money—can be a matter of life or death for real people. One concrete example: On any given night in DC, approximately 1,800 individuals and 130 families are chronically homeless—meaning they have been homeless repeatedly for years and have at least one—and often many—disabling conditions. Chronic homelessness has a high human and financial cost—disease and mortality rates increase among these vulnerable neighbors and the cost of emergency services required at each crisis point is high. There is solution that has been tested and proven to save both lives and money called Permanent Supportive Housing. As Pastor Ben says, “The solution for homelessness is housing.” And it costs almost half as much per year to house someone than it does to pay for emergency services. But while some Permanent Supportive Housing has been created in DC, the system remains largely unchanged because it would require an upfront investment of money to turn things around. What would Jesus have to say about that, do you suppose? What creative prophetic “sign” might he perform to make the point?
It is difficult for us to return to God the parts of our heart so devoted to the god of wealth. It is difficult to disentangle ourselves from the ways that the quid pro quo economy and the drive for a “healthy bottom line” get their hooks into us. It is difficult to release the fear of “zero sum” living, the fear that there isn’t enough, that if someone gets what they need, I will lose what I need. It is difficult for us to truly align our resources with our values, to make investment decisions based on care for the most vulnerable, based on justice, mercy, and faith.
We have a choice to make; because we can’t worship both God and money (Mt 6:24).
The god of money is a god that delights in competition and power plays, that doesn’t care who or what is destroyed as long as there is a healthy bottom line, and whose goal is to consume us even as we consume more and more. The god of money is a hungry god. // Jesus rides into town and offers an alternative. Jesus embodies the God of grace who delights in humility and justice and whose goal is to give life and to inspire generosity and love. In the economy of God’s Kin-dom, the poor no longer have to pay for forgiveness—in fact, no one does. God’s economy is grace. Not a cheap grace that expects nothing. But a costly grace that offers everything. Later in the story, Judas goes to those in power to see what they will pay him to deliver Jesus into their hands. They give him 30 pieces of silver; blood money. How could he have known?… Jesus’s blood was free. Judas saw the truth too late. Will we?
[ii] user on Twitter
[iii] Brian Williams, https://www.usnews.com/news/entertainment/articles/2017-04-07/brian-williams-calls-images-of-us-missile-launch-beautiful
[v] Ciara Linnane, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/tomahawk-maker-raytheon-leads-premarket-gainers-after-syrian-missile-strike-2017-04-07
[vi] Tocqueville, Alexis de; The Tocqueville Reader, Olivier Zunz, Alan S. Kahan, eds., Blackwell Publishing, 2002, p. 41.
[vii] Ian Bogost, “Pepsi’s New Ad is a Total Success,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/pepsi-ad-success/522021/
[viii] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 56.