Ancient Answers


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Room for Mercy

At the heart of our Liturgy is Mercy. We say it so often that there’s a Greek saying that makes fun of it. But make no mistake, Mercy is at the heart of our faith. And mercy is precisely what is missing in the world today. Everything comes from mercy. And the parable Jesus teaches today touches at the core of what we call religion and what we call gospel. Religion and gospel are not the same thing.

The great theologian Karl Barth said that religion is man’s rising to  go to God. But the essence of Christianity, what we can call the gospel, is God’s rising to go to man. Brilliant distinction. God rises to come to us because we need forgiveness, we need mercy. For some people that makes Christianity too negative. I still remember the woman we talked to at the harbor in Ydra two summers ago waiting for our boat back to Athens. How she was repelled by the many crucifixes she saw while traveling in Latin America and other Catholic countries. What perhaps she didn’t understand is that she was repelled not by the crucifixes, but by the Cross! The Cross, that “scandal” (σκάνδαλον, Galatians 5:11, translated as “offense” in most English Bibles) that strikes the heart of human thought; that reminder that we need forgiveness, that we need God to come to us – to be born among us, to walk among us, to be ridiculed and rejected by us, and finally to be crucified by us. 

Yes, we prefer our own versions of God. No Cross, no forgiveness, no praying for mercy. Those are all a big blow to human ego and self-satisfaction! No, all we need is love. Imagine no religion, sung the same John Lennon. Indeed, imagine no religion, yeah why not? Imagine the gospel instead. But no, we don’t want to imagine gospel. Gospel, evangelion, good news? Why do we need good news? We have fake news! 

Without mercy and forgiveness what do you have? Look at the Pharisee in today’s parable. He had no need of mercy. He was self-sufficient. He had all his religious requirements down pat. All he looked to receive from God was congratulations for being such a good religious man. But was he? His heart was full of hatred and contempt for the publican. He did not thank God for mercy, because he had no need of mercy. I thank you, God, that I am not like other men. You see, without mercy and forgiveness, you can pretty much hate anyone. Especially someone like the publican, who stands in the back and beats his breast asking for God’s mercy. Look how terrible that man is acting. Why is he so negative about himself, dragging himself like that? He must be a terrible sinner. Thank God I’m not like him.

One of the great ascetics of the Orthodox Church, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza (6th century) wrote this beautiful bit of advice:

God is the creator of all human beings, with their differences, their colors, their races. Be attentive: Every time you draw nearer to your neighbor, you draw nearer to God. Be attentive: Every time you go farther from your neighbor, you go farther from God.

Elias Chacour was priest of a small village in northern Israel before being made Archbishop of Haifa. When he first arrived at the village church in 1965 he found a church both physically and spiritually in total disrepair. When the people assembled in church he could see the deep divisions that existed among them. Four distinct groups, each keeping distance from the others. “The empty space between the four groups made the sign of the Cross” he said. On Palm Sunday of his first year at their priest, Father Elias looked at the grim faces in church. After the Gospel reading, when it was time for the sermon, he walked to the back of the church and padlocked the door. Returning to the front he told his parishioners:

Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other. You gossip and spread lies. Your religion is a lie. If you can’t love your brother or sister whom you see, how can you say that you love God whom you don’t see? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced. I have tried for months to unite you. I have failed. I am only a man. But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity. His name is Jesus Christ. He has the power to forgive you. So now I will be quiet and allow him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we stay locked in here. If you want, you can kill each other. In that case I’ll provide your funerals gratis.

A long silence followed. Finally one man stood up, faced the congregation, bowed his head and said, “I am sorry. I am the worst of all. More than any of you, I need forgiveness.” Father Elias embraced him, and the church immediately became a chaos of embracing and forgiveness. Father Elias had to shout to be heard. “Dear friends, we are not going to wait until next week to celebrate the Resurrection. Let us begin it now. We were dead to each other. Now we are alive again.” He began to sing the paschal hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” The congregation joined in. Unlocking the door, Father Elias led them into the village streets. The rest of that day, in every home, at every door, there was forgiveness. It was resurrection for the entire village.

It’s a beautiful story from the recent past. Elias Chacour is still alive, retired now. Three times he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He describes himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli.” It doesn’t get much better than that. In 2001, Chacour gave a commencement address at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he accepted an honorary degree. An excerpt from his speech:

You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians — oh, bless your hearts — take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.

Those are words of mercy, those are the words of someone completely under the power of the gospel. Mercy, dear friends, is at the heart of healing – not only at Mercy Hospital here in Portland, but the healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring to human relations and how we see each other and ourselves through the eyes of God. Thomas Merton, one of my great heroes, wrote:

If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ. 

“In mystery” is the key. Do you have room in your life for mystery? Then you have room for mercy. 


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The Commandments of Theocracy

For many years evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States have been fighting for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially courthouses, city halls and legislatures. I have always understood this as only a political move to assert the mythology of America’s Christian origins. I see it as political because there is no theological rationale for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who claim salvation by faith alone and not by works to be so obsessed with placing the Ten Commandments on buildings. After all, they quote Saint Paul and his opposition to the law (meaning the Mosaic law, of course) every opportunity they get. They love Paul’s rejection of the Law, and yet they want to promote the heart and soul of the Mosaic Law! Go figure. But as I said, this is not a theological project; it is purely political and theocratic, the delusion of Christian nation.

The Ten Commandments have lasting value in and of themselves. They don’t need American theocrats to buttress them. They are essential building blocks of the covenants that God established with the people of Israel. But one has to question their validity outside the covenants with ancient Israel. One could accept the last six of the Ten Commandments (“words” as Exodus 20 calls them); they have some universal validity. But even among these last six commandments, there are questions that arise. What does it mean to honor father and mother? In the Mosaic Law, children are to be stoned to death if they disobey or rebel against their parents:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So along with the commandment to honor father and mother, will we also consider the punishment by death on those who don’t honor parents and who disobey their parents? After all, punishment is part of the bargain that a commandment implies.

As for adultery, of course it’s a sin. But put up this commandment in a courthouse? Are courts going to punish people who commit adultery? Moses of course said stone them to death. And how is one to define coveting, when our whole society is motivated by greed and competition?

But the real problem with the Ten Commandments lies in the first four; and I will claim that it is primarily for these first four that our evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats want to push the Ten Commandments into the public square. Let’s take the first four commandments one by one.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” If I am a Christian, I certainly will have no other god but the Lord. But the Lord did not bring me out of Egypt – perhaps out of slavery to sin, but certainly not out of slavery in the land of Egypt. This first commandment was God’s announcement of his covenant with the people of Israel whom he had just brought out of Egypt. It has nothing to do with me. My covenant with God is not rooted in an exodus from Egypt! And what right do I have to shove this commandment in the face of people who have no connection with the biblical narrative and worship a god of their own liberation?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” By this commandment, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians stand condemned. Regardless of how our traditions have rationalized the use of images in our churches, the evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats reject the Catholic and Orthodox use of images, so in their eyes we are transgressing against the second commandment. No wonder Orthodox and Catholics will not go up in the Rapture, right? Don’t make me throw up in your face, Mr. Evangelical Preacher!

But isn’t it ironic that the same theocrats who blast Catholic and Orthodox use of icons and statues like to start their worship services with the American National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag? When a conservative Evangelical or Baptist stands at attention at the start of a worship service with his or her right hand placed over his or her heart, how is that different from a Catholic or Orthodox venerating an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary? Granted the difference in theologies, I consider the veneration of flag in most Evangelical and Baptist churches a sheer example of idolatry and a clear violation of the second commandment. And finally, with respect to the second commandment: really, we are to promote the idea of God punishing the sins of parents to the third or fourth generation of children? Really, we should promote that image of God. Oh, I know, the theocrats only want to exhibit the short versions of the commandments – but that’s just dishonesty.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” Who can disagree with this commandment? And yet it is the most universally disobeyed of all ten commandments. So, good luck with this one.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” I love the Sabbath, but who observes the Sabbath besides observant Jews. Do Christians? Or have we replaced the Sabbath with Sunday? Yes, that’s exactly what the Christian church did back in the early centuries of Christendom. But do Christians even observe Sunday as a replacement for the Sabbath? How many of these theocrats resist the urge to go to the Mall on Sunday afternoon? And how many of them are out there watching their kids in team sports instead of being at worship? Oh, I forgot they don’t need to be at worship on Sunday morning because they prefer to go in the evening or Wednesday night instead. Those times are more convenient and do not interfere with kids sports. So how does anyone observe or honor, not the Sabbath, but the Sabbath idea?

But let’s return to that first commandment one last time. God begins by declaring, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” It begins there, that is the root cause and justification for everything that follows.

Consider now Exodus 22:20“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 23:9“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the same way that the first commandment begins with a reminder of Egypt, so also the commandments about how strangers and foreigners are to be treated are based on reminders of Egypt. But these commandments hardly register in the minds of flag-worshipping theocrats, because then they would have to disagree with their government’s policies toward refugees and migrants. No, their idolatry of flag and country and guns must endure! But let’s not be fooled by their pretense of honoring the word of God. In their minds and hearts these are the commandments of theocracy, nothing more or less.

 


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The Provocative Jesus

Two versions of the same Gospel story, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

First, Mark’s version:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 

Then, Matthew’s version:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark calls her “Syrophoenician”, Matthew “Canaanite” – either way, a pagan, an outsider to the community of God’s people. She comes to the Jewish man of God as a beggar. Matthew writes that she called him Lord and Son of David. Perhaps that is the title that she heard other people calling him, for she a pagan would not “son of David” in her vocabulary. But more likely it is simply Matthew’s insertion, as Matthew among the four Gospel writers is the most concerned to refer to Jesus as son of David – 9 separate times in Matthew, only 2 in Mark, 2 in Luke, and none in John. And only in Matthew’s version does Jesus speak of “the house of Israel.” And only in Matthew does Jesus commend the woman’s faith! In Mark he simply commends “this word” (διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον) that she spoke to Jesus. I prefer to see Mark’s version as the more original version. Both Gospel writers recognize the Jewish-pagan contrast at the heart of this story, but by calling the woman a “Canaanite” Matthew places the encounter in the context of the ancient conflict between the Israelites and Canaanites. Matthew’s hand in his version is heavy indeed.

The much-missed late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan reflected deeply on this passage in the Epilogue to his book, Sorrow Built a Bridge, Friendship and AIDS, a book in which he recounts his care of people with AIDS during the 1980s in the Supportive Care Program of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Berrigan’s ministry toward people with AIDS was one more chapter in his extraordinary life of resistance to the culture of death that reigns over much of human affairs. The fight against AIDS went hand in hand with his life-long fight against war and nuclear weapons and against social and government institutions that are indifferent to suffering, poverty and exclusion.

After quoting the passage from Mark’s version, Berrigan went on to write:

I commend this text to you, and to my own soul. Many of us have, we are told, for different reasons, something less than a human claim on the bread of Christ; which is to say, on his attentiveness, his response, his healing. Certain claims are neither large nor persuasive. What, after all, is the worth of a canine claim, proceeding as it does from a dog’s life? … Those securely in possession, established where they sit – they are given to glances, words, slamming of doors in faces, such acts as might improve the occasion when a stray dog enters a banquet hall. Or a church.

Berrigan is speaking to me and you. He is provocative as he always was in his books and in his life work. As a Catholic who devoted his life’s work to human suffering and exclusion, he cannot avoid bringing the “bread of Christ” into his meditation – the exact thing that most Christians, and certainly we Orthodox, do not date to do. Imagine that, bringing the holiest of the sacraments into a discussion about AIDS and a pagan woman’s encounter with Jesus!

The church has more rules about participation in the Eucharist – the communion of the body and blood of Christ – than about anything else. The modern rules that most people grew up with are pathetic – rules about food, sex, and other trivialities. Of greater importance are the developments during the formative centuries of Orthodox theology and jurisprudence. The bishops who met at the various ecumenical councils could not find enough reasons to exclude as many people as possible from communion! They were certain that God had entrusted them with protecting the holy sacrament from defiled hands and souls.

Jesus provoked the Syrophoenician woman by calling her a dog. In doing so, Jesus was parodying the way most Jews mocked pagans. But the woman had substance, she would not go away just because a man treated her this way. She met Jesus’ insult head on and earned his respect and her daughter’s healing. When the church today refuses communion, are we treating people as “dogs”? Do we exclude where Jesus included?

Last Sunday morning an elderly man of a rather haggard appearance walked into our church during Matins and clearly wanted to speak with the priest. I was in the midst of a service and obviously I could not attend to him. I actually felt bad as I saw him leave the church, and I placed myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was I like the priest or the levite who were more intent on their religious duties than to care for the wounded man? Had I put my liturgical responsibility above hearing a man’s cry for help? I struggled with those thoughts as I continued Matins and Liturgy. However, after Liturgy was over, I was told what this man uttered on his way out: “I thought this was a church for whites!” Clearly he was disappointed to see black people in our church. He walked into our church that morning, intent even to interrupt a service in progress, to ask for money. This happens quite often in our church as we are an inner-city parish. And yet, this needy man could not avoid spewing out his racist filth.

Very rarely indeed are moral lines clearly drawn or visible. Human behavior never ceases to surprise and confuse. But whether it’s a man spewing racial hatred or governments keeping people out or religions seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are heading for disaster unless we begin to take Jesus seriously – not in the apocalyptic terms that many American Christians do, but in the terms he defines in the various Gospel stories that show us his true face.

The December issue of National Geographic magazine has a challenging article by Jared Diamond that paints in convincing terms competition for the earth’s limited resources as more and more people and nations aim to achieve the same standard of living we are used to. The results will be disastrous for the planet unless governments – starting with our own – take steps to decrease income inequality and the chasm between rich and poor. Unless a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources is achieved, the growing clamor of people to have what we have will spell disaster before this century is out. The article is available online. It’s well worth reading if you care about the world around you, or the world your children or grandchildren will live in.

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is a parable for today. It should provoke us to think deeply about how we view others. But more importantly, it is a parable for governments and churches. Who do we exclude? Who do we treat like ‘dogs’? And when are we who call ourselves Christians start following the example of Jesus?


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When God is rejected

God’s love for the world entailed also a love for the nations. The Bible does not shy away from the political overtones of God’s ways. But God’s desire for the nations has always – without exception – been disappointed. Yes, disappointed – from the very beginning. God’s desire was that his people would be “a light for the nations” as the verse from Isaiah boldly proclaims.

But what happens when the people of God become like the “nations”? Then the light is no more. In the early days of the Jewish people, after their exodus from Egypt and their settling in the promised land, they were led by “judges” – men or women (yes, women!) of wisdom and spiritual (and military!) strength. Samuel was the last of the judges. Two books in the Old Testament are named for him, because of the huge role he played in the early life of the nation of Israel. In chapter 7 of the First Book of Samuel we read:

Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you, and direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.

But it didn’t last long. Have you noticed how few things last long in the Bible? How easy it is for people to forget God and God’s goodness? Is it easy for you to want to be like everyone else and do what everyone else is doing? You’re not alone. In the very next chapter of 1 Samuel, chapter 8, we read one of the most devastating and most political passages in all Scripture:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, hearken to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

The people wanted a king so they could be like “all the nations.” But God explains to Samuel what is really going on. The people are rejecting God; they don’t want God as their king, they want a regular king, like the other nations have. They want to be like everyone else. But God wants them to know how it will be when kings rule over them and instructs Samuel to warn them how things will be when they are ruled by kings. But the people insisted, they wanted a king. And as it turned out for the next five hundred years, most kings were a disaster – as human “kings” and presidents generally are.

God meant his people to be a light to the nations – not to be like the nations. No nation – without any exception – can be a light or a “city on a hill” as some national mythologies like to say. Only people and communities of people can be light to the world, to the nations, and to the nation. Israel failed in its calling because it wanted to be like the nations. The Christian Church has failed because it chose to become an apparatus of nations and kings.

There remains only the hope for people and communities of people to accept the radical calling of God to be LIGHT. The calling is a choice for every one of us and for every community of faith. Do we continue the tradition of cozying up to nations and their leaders, or do we strike out as men and women of resistance to what every one else cheers on? God does not force anyone. But God does lament when his own people choose to be like every one else. God is not like the kings of nations. God is not like anyone else! His leadership in our lives is unique and uniquely transformative. Where can you start today not to be like every one else?


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Lights of God rise in the darkness

Over a hundred years ago (in 1915, to be precise) the great German theologian wrote the following, in an essay called “The Righteousness of God”:

What is the use of all the preaching, baptising, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, the counsels of ‘applied religion’….the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God?… Are we not rather hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will?

Not exactly a feel-good passage for someone like me who is involved in “preaching…religious moods and modes, applied religion…monthly church papers” and other forms of “modern ecclesiasticism”! Am I and the people with me waiting for the “critical event that ought to happen” but “probably never will?” What is the “critical event”?

Elsewhere in this same essay, Barth wrote:

We make a veritable uproar with our morality and culture and religion. But we may presently be brought to silence, and with that will begin our true redemption.

In the reflection I posted early this morning about the Orthodox celebration of the Elevation of the Cross I ended by proposing a different form to the ritual of the elevation, a form that would shift the focus of the church from inward-looking to outward-looking. The Cross of Jesus Christ – of Jesus Christ, not something other that any of us might call “my cross”! – is the most perfect expression of God’s righteousness. And it is the Cross that we should present to the world, not the “uproar” of “our morality and culture and religion”! And the Cross does’t need an uproar or words and slogans. The Cross asks us to be silent, empty, in order for the Cross to reveal Christ to the world.

Barth wrote this essay over a hundred years ago, in the midst of the First World War. We today are not in the midst of a world war, but we are in a war nevertheless. Once again, I call upon Karl Barth from his European vantage point of 1915. Perhaps things are not much different. Only the guns of war have changed.

There seem to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion – to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the grey sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe – in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion and militarism – the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the ‘religious life’ go their uninterrupted way…A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception!

In the midst of the unrighteousness Barth names – and how contemporary they sound a hundred years later – the church takes comfort inside our walls, surrounded by our holy icons, repeating age-old rituals (while not even probing their spiritual meaning). As our pews empty, we take comfort that the ‘faithful’ still come. Meanwhile, hordes are leaving for other religious fixes. And then there are the ones in our midst who resent the changes going on in the church: they resent that the church today is not the church of their fathers and mothers! I hear that from men and women in their 40s and 50s.

How do we reach men and women in their 40s and 50s who want nothing else than the church to be the church they grew up in, when the church was little more than an ethnic club? I imagine that the words of Karl Barth are completely incomprehensible to people who live in an imaginary past, when America was GREAT, when the church was GREAT!

The Orthodox Church relies on its traditions and liturgical wealth to ensure its existence and durability. We baptise infants, we trust that the sacraments and sanctifying acts of the church will plant the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our people. And I fully believe that we are right in making these claims. I believe that God acts in the lives of people through the sacraments and the various sanctifying acts of the church. God acts through the sermons that are preached with the sacraments. God acts through the community bonds that Christian fellowship engenders. But only if we allow the righteousness of God to be revealed; only when we don’t see our own righteousness as the measure of faith; only when we allow ourselves to be silent so God can speak.

We will not fill our pews with smarter programs and entertaining music and feel-good sermons. Mega churches do those things and pack them in by the thousands every Sunday. Good for them. Though they claim to be ‘evangelical’, Karl Barth would probably have a hard time recognising them as Christian. Programs, ‘relevance’ and ingenious efforts at Christian entertainment were prevalent a century ago when he wrote his essay “The Righteousness of God”, and they have been brought to new levels of ingenuity in our technological age. But they are not the mission of the church. Relevance is NOT the mission of the church! Relevance to what? Facebook, short attention spans, social media, materialism, the politics of race and division, our therapeutic fixations?

Barth’s magnum opus was his multi-volume Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics)

No, the church represents – or should represent – the presence of God’s righteousness, which is why I proposed that the Cross could be more appropriately elevated outward on Sept. 14th, so it could face outward from the church. The Cross of Jesus Christ is our emblem and we should live as the Cross teaches us. Then and only then can the church escape the dead ends of relevance and power. Let us face the world with the Cross of Christ – not as a trinket around our necks, but as the force that shows us how to live as the righteousness of God in the world. Is the Elevation of the Cross merely a ritual? Or does it bring us closer to the “critical event”?

I conclude with more words by Karl Barth:

In the midst of the old world of war and money and death…Lights of God rise in the darkness, and powers of God become real in weakness. Real love, real sincerity, real progress become possible; morality and culture, state and nation, even religion and the church now become possible – now for the first time! One is taken with the vision of an immortality or even of a future life here on earth in which the righteous will of God breaks forth, prevails, and is done as it is in heaven.

There is the “critical event” so far as I can make out without reading the entire essay. There is the “critical event” that has not happened yet and probably never will in Barth’s own words: When God’s righteousness prevails “and is done as it is in heaven”! But can we at least aim to be lights of God in the darkness? Can we rise from our lethargy and allow the Cross and the Holy Spirit to guide our walk through life, this life?

I don’t own a copy of Barth’s essay “The Righteousness of God”. All the above passages are as quoted in the book “Church as Moral Community – Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922” by Michael D. O’Neil, published in 2013 by the Paternoster Press in England.


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A Simple Change in Symbolism

On September 14th the Orthodox Church celebrates the Elevation (or Exaltation) of the Holy Cross. In Byzantium this was more than a holy day. In some respects it was the national holiday of the Byzantine Empire! Consider the primary hymn of the day:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the kings over the barbarians, and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (politeuma).

Many Orthodox churches today have de-politicised this hymn with translations like the following:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the faithful over adversities (or, obstacles), and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (or, your people).

But once you move past the imperial context of this great feast, you are confronted by some strong theology. Consider the following hymn from the Vespers of the feast. It is sung/chanted, yet reads like a theological treatise.

Come, all you nations, let us worship the blessed tree, through which has come the eternal vindication. For he who deceived our forefather Adam by means of a tree is himself ensnared by the Cross. And he falls headlong tumbling down, who formerly held the royal master-work in tyranny. By the blood of God, the venom of the serpent is washed away, and the curse of the just sentence is lifted by the unjust sentence on the Righteous One who was condemned. For it was necessary to remedy the tree by a tree, and to put an end to the passions suffered by the condemned at the free by the Passion of the Lord. Glory to you O Christ King; glory to the awesome plan for our salvation, by which you saved everyone, as you are good and the lover of humankind. 

Note the references to the Cross as “tree”. This is classic terminology and serves to contrast the tree of the Cross to the tree in Eden which was the instrument for the fall of the first human beings. It is this contrast that the hymn articulates and celebrates.

The high-point of the feast observance occurs at the end of Matins. The Great Doxology is sung and at the concluding portion a slow procession of the Cross takes place. The Cross is decorated with basil in the Greek tradition. (Flowers are also used: in combination with basil, or alone in parts of the world where fresh basil is not common.) Basil is basilikos in Greek, “of the king”, so in one sense it reconnects us with the imperial history of the feast. But the true King is, of course, Jesus Christ – so Jesus is the true reference of the basil. The Cross of King Jesus is embedded in basil and carried in a solemn procession to the centre of the church where a unique ritual takes place.

The procession ends at a small table that has been set up in the centre of the church in front of the gathered congregation. The priest stands in front of this table, intones a short prayer and then slowly lowers the cross toward the floor while holding it above his head and then raises it back up again above his head – all this while the choir or the chanters repeat the words “Kyrie Eleison.” Then the priest moves to stand facing the right side of the table, and the lowering and elevation of the Cross is repeated. Then the priest stands facing the rear side of the table, then the left side, and finally back to the front. So a total five times the ritual of lowering and elevating the Cross takes place.

The symbolism is clear. The table represents the world, the inhabited earth (oecumene). The Cross is raised on each of the four points of the compass to bless and protect the entire world. The tree of the Cross recreates the entire world; it reverses the fall which happened at the tree of Eden. The entire world becomes a restored Eden. Of course the vision is eschatological, but in the Byzantine Empire the message was also one of hegemonic power.

It struck me last night as I celebrated the feast in our church that we need a different symbolism to complement the traditional understanding. Instead of the Cross being raised while facing the table, why not face outward from the table at the four points of the compass? Instead of representing the world being blessed/protected by the Cross, the table represents the Church! And the Church faces outward, proclaiming the Cross of Jesus Christ to the world!

The subtleties of Orthodox and Byzantine symbolism are lost on most Orthodox Christians today, and it is incumbent on clergy and lay teachers to open the treasure chest that we have inherited. Why boast of the “Treasures of Orthodoxy” if they remain meaningless rituals that don’t inspire and motivate the Church to spread the gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ? And isn’t the visual message of looking outward instead of inward a needed corrective to the Orthodox tendency to look inward and live in the past?

(Unfortunately, no photos were taken of our vigil service, so the photos included here are from the Internet.)


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The Unspoken Morality

Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam. He was interviewed last night by Christiane Amanpour on PBS. They discussed the current policy of the United States to separate children from their parents if they enter the US “illegally”. After playing a clip of Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending the policy – even in the wake of revelations that the US government has lost track of about 1,500 such children who were separated from their parents.

Mr. Nguyen commented that separating children from their parents is “inhumane and immoral. So it’s a moral question that I don’t think we should lose sight of. And I think too many people in this country have lost sight of that as they stick to this rhetoric of legality.” That’s precisely the missing point, I thought to myself: No one is talking about the morality of the policy! And that is very much the problem with much of what transpires today in political debates.

Nguyen went on to discuss the visibility of American involvement in Vietnam and how that prompted a responsibility to take in refugees after that war. But, Nguyen pointed out, American involvement in the conditions south of the border that created some of the economic and political reasons for refugees coming north has mostly gone unnoticed, invisible to most Americans. So many Americans feel they have no obligation to these refugees, and so it’s “easier to behave toward them in inhumane and callous fashion.”

White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, spoke out against immigrants and refugees who he feels will not assimilate to US society because of their low education and rural background. But as Nguyen went on to comment, his own mother was precisely the kind of person Kelly describes – born poor in a rural area, who had 6th-grade education! Yet, she was a heroic woman who worked hard and produced children who went on to Harvard. John Kelly’s own grandparents were Italian and Irish working-class labourers. And that has been the history of immigration in this country. Every wave of new immigrants has been greeted initially with suspicion and prejudice until after a generation or two.

The “boat people” who left Vietnam as refugees were in hindsight considered the “good” immigrants. Should the current refugees from the south be considered not “good”? Nguyen reminded Amanpour that the “oceanic refugees” (his substitute label for the “boat people”) had a 50% survival rate. And only 36% of the American people wanted to accept these refugees – even then! So perhaps not much has changed after all. People feared that the “boat people” would bring all sorts of problems and contamination to this country. But 40 years later, most Americans have forgotten the coming of the “boat people.” Even many Vietnamese themselves now oppose accepting new immigrants and refugees! With a smile on his face, Nguyen vouches for the fact that many of the Vietnamese refugees that he grew up with in California were pretty bad refugees, doing things like welfare cheating and scams and “much, much worse”! But they overcame. His point is not that immigrants or refugees are perfect, but given the opportunity they tend to succeed.

We all have a story; we’re all storytellers, Nguyen reminded me and other viewers of his interview; though most of us will never win a Pulitzer Prize like Nguyen did. But when Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again” he is telling a story in four words that is very seductive and powerful to many people, and they repeat that story, over dinner and in other settings. So those who believe in a story about an inclusive America, a welcoming America, an America that is about all kinds of people – it’s important to tell this other story, and make America love again! On that note, Mr. Nguyen ended his brief but illuminating interview with Christiane Amanpour.

I’m an immigrant myself – and not once, but twice! I emigrated to Canada in 1963, at the age of 10. And I became an immigrant to the US in 1983. After studying theology in New York (1980-83), I was offered a job by the Greek community in Astoria, New York, in 1983 to teach Chemistry and Physics at the St. Demetrios High School. I subsequently got married and that sealed my decision to stay in the United States. My experiences with immigration in both Canada and the US have been completely positive. I never experienced prejudice or suspicion in either country.

I received undergraduate and post-graduate education at Canada’s top three universities: McGill in Montréal, University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia in Vancouver. My two brothers had very little proclivity for academic work and preferred to have a good time. But both eventually settled to work for their own and for the family’s improvement. There were, to be sure, members of my extended clan who engaged in petty welfare fraud and took advantage of Canada’s very generous health and social support programs in ways that didn’t sit well with me. And there were one or two cousins who jumped ship in Halifax and entered the country illegally. But they became law-abiding productive members of Canadian society and eventually moved to the United States where they became successful businessmen. So certainly we were not all perfect immigrants, and I can relate a bit to what Mr. Nguyen was sharing about his own life among other refugees in California.

My family emigrated from Greece for economic reasons. We fled poverty to come to a country that offered opportunities to get ahead, to receive quality education, and live a mostly comfortable, but not luxurious, life. We were not political or war refugees.

Like Nguyen, I also am deeply saddened when I see fellow Greeks speak against immigrants today and support inhumane treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants. How easily many of us forget where we came from, and why we came. When I see people who benefitted from the generosity of the United States – and even engaged in welfare fraud! – now promote anti-immigrant vitriol, it makes me angry. And I wonder whether such people have ever known the love of God in a personal way. People hear talk about the love of God in church gatherings, in Liturgy; they pay lip service to this love of God when it works to their own benefit. But they cannot see how this loving God might also be loving toward others not like us. And how this loving God may just be telling us to love others who are not like us.

I don’t know what religion Viet Thanh Nguyen subscribes to, if any. Did he become a Christian after his emigration to the United States? Is he a Buddhist, or an atheist? I don’t know. But hearing him raise the moral question today in the interview with Amanpour really hit the nail on the head. When “legality” takes precedence over morality, it is a very troubling matter for conscientious Christians. This is a moral question! And it disturbs me when I see millions of allegedly “evangelical” (that is, gospel-believing) Christians promote hatred toward people who are seeking a chance at a better life.

One of the greatest theologians the United States has produced was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In 1932 he published what became his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, in which he claimed that that people are more likely to sin as members of groups than as individuals. This was a very controversial idea at the time, though the imminent rise of Nazi fascism quickly put a stamp of reality on the book’s thesis. And unfortunately, what is happening today in many countries, including or especially our own, is clear proof of the group dynamics of much immoral and hateful attitudes. People who are pleasant, supportive and welcoming in their inter-personal behaviors can quickly become something else when immersing themselves in “fake news” or when they are surrounded by cheering true believers at political rallies.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear; the behaviour and teachings of Jesus are clear! Perhaps I will give voice to some of the scriptures in a later post, but for now this present post has grown long enough. My point has been to raise the moral question. Though Nguyen and I have partly and necessarily addressed the present political situation, the attitudes that ignore the moral question extend beyond partisan politics and religion. Nguyen’s point that we are all storytellers is the challenge that hit me personally. What story am I writing in this moment of world history? What is the story we are all creating as a country, as a planetary culture? For how long will refugees and immigrants continue to be a moral problem?

Hannibal Hamlin, 15th Vice President of the United States

P.S. As I finished this post and prepared to publish it, a new episode in the PBS series American Experience came on. The title of the episode: “The Chinese Exclusion Act” – about an 1882 law aimed against Chinese coming to the United States. Worth searching on-demand or online. There were voices of dissent, but not enough to prevent Congress passing the law. Standout among the dissenters was Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who twenty years earlier had been Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president, and was now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the floor of the Senate he denounced the Chinese Exclusion Actt: “I’m opposed to this. It violates fundamental American principles…I leave my vote, the last legacy to my children, that they may esteem it the brightest act of my life.” “This is a person with enormous moral authority,” the program narrator added. That is what we need today, persons with enormous moral authority.