Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"We Wish to See Jesus"

I preached at Bethlehem Lutheran in Los Alamos, NM this past Sunday; I am constantly bewildered by the love and care that radiates from this community!
John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "We wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Jesus answered them,
"The hour has come for the Son of Humanity to be glorified.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--' Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
Father, glorify your name."

Then a voice came from heaven,
"I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."
The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said,
"An angel has spoken to him."

Jesus answered,
"This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
Now is the judgment of this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

A saying I have been hearing lately is “Don't judge your insides by the looks of other people's outsides!” This advice seems increasingly relevant in a world in which we can see so much of the activities of other people. We scroll through Facebook on our laptops, cell phones, and iPads and witness other people sharing pictures of their trip to Europe, people with big smiles while hugging relatives or friends, breathtaking hiking views, or even the brunch spot a person tried last Saturday. We do all of this peering into the daily lives of others while sitting alone with our technology screens.
We can do this comparing ourselves to the outsides of others while at coffee hour at worship, hearing about the accomplishments of the people around us all the while holding the anxieties and insecurities that linger within our souls. It is stunning to celebrate the joys of witnessing the people around us shine with the gifts that God has given them; it is another thing entirely to hold ourselves to impossible standards of happiness and fulfillment when we compare our worries of not being good enough to the smoothed out edges of the person next to us. The redeeming piece of this is that people look shiny, admirable, and normal until you get to know them well enough to see their unique peculiarities; we are all complex creatures full of worries, gifts, grief, yearning, and people we deeply care for. While it's easy to look at others to see the shiny, happy outsides, I find it much more interesting to open myself up to show my insides, or the unique parts, so that I can connect with other people's insides.
This past fall I took a course called Transforming Christian Theology. My professor began our first class together by showing us our class mascot, which was a Jesus live action figure. This was the deluxe Jesus, wearing a white robe and sandals, comes complete with bread and wine to share, glow in the dark hands to signify the miracles Jesus performs, and a whipping lash for chasing unwanted people out of the temple. This action figure for me signifies the shiny, outside parts of Jesus that crowds of people flock to in order to see what Jesus is capable of.
In the text we are delving into today, we hear about Greek people that desire to see Jesus. As people were preparing for the festival of the Passover, there was a buzz about who Jesus is and amazement surrounding the recent raising of Lazarus from the dead. The Jewish Pharisees are astonished and fearful about the potential of this leader Jesus. People have heard of the teachings and miracles of Jesus and naturally want to see him. As hearers of this story, we can understand the yearning to experience the awe of being near a person who is making a difference in this world. When you feel love radiating from the caring heart of someone or are wowed by the intelligence of a person, it's natural to want to see more of who they are. We want to see Jesus; we long to hear the teachings and witness the miracles. We yearn to be with the Light of the World.
When Jesus hears the request of the Greeks to see him, he shows us that experiencing the person of Jesus is much more complicated than the charismatic exterior. In this text we are given a gift of being able to see a glimmer of the not-so-shiny inside thoughts of Jesus. When we say that we wish to see Jesus, laden within that hope is the assumption that if we experience the person of Jesus, we will be changed. Jesus hears the longing of the people while also knowing that his death was near. How will people be changed if the embodied presence of God is not walking around and proclaiming for our ears to hear and eyes to see?
We do not know if the Greeks ever meet Jesus face-to-face; instead we are given parallels to how we can live our lives in this world as embodied creatures. We long to see Jesus; in this text we are shown a piece of his insides. We see a person who is struggling with his human longings of this world. I imagine a Jesus that replies by saying: “You wish to see me? You know, I wish I could continue to see myself here too, but that is not the path that is meant to be.” Jesus pushes away the fascination and awe that people place upon him as the Blessed One but exposes the gritty, terrifying task of being crucified for the purpose of turning the world upside down. Jesus does not proudly say what lies in store for him but instead shares how troubled his soul is; he wonders about asking to be spared from the hour of being killed. A Jesus that questions and agonizes over the immense call towards death is a human that I certainly understand. The insides of Jesus are the parts that make this a Gospel that permeates across boundaries and cultures—we can stand beside a Savior that is scared, troubled, and lonely because at some points in our lives we have been that person. That sense of being troubled is exactly the feeling that Jesus wants to connect with us in.
Jesus strongly exclaims the role that we all have in this world; we have come here to be human bodies that will transform into something much bigger than we can imagine. When Jesus speaks of how a grain of wheat falls to the ground to die in order to blossom into bountiful wheat, we see the beginnings of the bodily pain and death that is quickly approaching. This inevitable chain of events towards crucifixion serves an immense purpose; the body of Jesus dies and the raising up of the body of Christ is a transformation of what was destroyed. Jesus embraces the call of death not without worries or fear but because of the promise of radical change.
In the death of this grain of wheat and in the death of Jesus, a new community of Christ is born. This is a space that encompasses much more than we can creatively imagine; this body of Christ is what makes our souls tingle. On this earth, we wish to see Jesus; we are shown a Christ that is much more complex that the disciples or we are able to comprehend. We are given a Savior that lived embodied as an Arabic, Jewish, and Aramaic-speaking man that is transformed as Christ to be the wisdom of the world that speaks through women and men of many cultures and languages. When Jesus speaks to us in this text, he is echoing the proclamation of the prophet Isaiah who says: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
We are given a glimmer of the explosive imagination that Christ creates in our world. When Jesus proclaims that those who love their life will lose it, I believe it is vital to make a distinction between what it means to be an active embodied being in this world and clinging to the assumptions of what our lives should be like. In a world that highly values narrow definitions of success, it is difficult to avoid slipping into viewing ourselves only for what our outsides look like. It's easy to create solutions for how to pad ourselves in security from the pain and uncertainty that comes with being a beautifully flawed human. Jesus is calling us to peer into ourselves; we are called to begin to critically examine the deep yearnings and questions we have.
When we engage deeply in the call that Christ has for us, there will be pieces of us that will fall away into the earth as we learn how to bear fruit together as people of faith. What dreams linger within you, bursting to be lived out? Jesus does not decide to die for the sake of all people but he heeds a burning call from God that was already inside of him. Each of us brings gifts and particular interests that equip us to be servants of Christ; what pieces inside of you are being called forward to create change? How will this community fall into the earth and be transformed by engaging with our hope of new life? We are called to step out together as brave, vulnerable people that proclaim our worries, our yearnings, and our creative vision for how we live as Christ in this world.

Monday, March 16, 2015

TEAM AMERICA: World Police (American Exceptionalism Oppresses Black Bodies)

TEAM AMERICA: World Police.  I f'ing love this movie.  I first saw it in high school and it continues to be one of my favorite movies.  Why, per say, would a feminist who has never shot a gun adore this movie?

I appreciate this movie because Trey Parker and Matt Stone are able to hilariously articulate American exceptionalism.  This term is defined by viewing the United States as qualitatively different and/or above other nations.  The first scene of this movie includes the Lourve and Eiffel Tower being destroyed by just a few Americans in flashy oufits and massive weaponry.  It's comical to me that the members of Team America high-five after tearing down the beloved architecture of Paris (blowing up many civilians along with a few terrorists) in the name of freedom for all.  The ridiculous, exaggerated actions of this team of gun-toting freedom fighters exposes an assumption that is common in American patriotism: the people of the United States understand best what freedom for all people looks like.

William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy, argues against the concept of a nation-state as a promoter and protector of the common good (Kindle 103).  Cavanaugh speaks of the danger that is inherent to lifting up a nation-state as the natural way of organizing society.  Within the US there is a common thread that our nation has been founded on the call for all people to have freedom.

Cavanaugh argues that the idea of a state being developed for the common food is not supported historically; Cavanaugh references Joseph Strayer who explains that the movement toward a nation-state developed in the fourteenth century with the members of the royal courts acquiring power by having people assemble and pay taxes in order to be represented in the courts of law.  In order to be represented in a court case, people would have to pay taxes and if you were unable to pay (ie anyone who didn't own property probably couldn't), you would not be represented by the royal court.  That sounds quite complicated to me; luckily the conclusion is a bit easier to grasp: the rise of the state does not emerge of a search for the common good but rather for dominant groups to benefit.

Out of the movement from local communities towards a larger group, or a state, emerges a need for a big group of people to adhere to and be loyal to the state or nation that they are a part of.  This is why nationalism and patriotism are so important to keep a state alive.  Cavanaugh argues that the state, society, and religion are fused together so that people believe that their loyalty to their country is what holds weight in their relationships, job, and even their relationship with God.  The biggest issue I have with nationalism is that when we are loyal to one group of people we are automatically making an Other.  Whoever is outside of the nation-state is not a part of our belief system and therefore is not considered within the freedom for all.

For me it is easy to understand that the nation-state does not work towards the common good precisely because in it's beginnings the United States did not give freedom to all people.  Kelly Brown Douglas argues in Sexuality and the Black Church that black bodies are a pawn of white culture.  She explains the movement from European thought in the eighteenth century that espouses the inferiority of Black-skinned people develops into an intellectual ideology of White supremacy within the nineteenth century in which "American scholars explain blackness as a sign of degeneracy" (15).  How can we say that the United States nation is founded on the concept of freedom for all when Black-skinned people were seen as inferior and were institutionalized into slavery?
 I think that Cavanaugh's points about how the United States emerges out of a myth that it is working for the common good is done by creating a state that lifts up white culture while dehumanizing black bodies.  It is a lot easier to bond together as a nation against an Other; within the roots of America white supremacy connects the represented, tax-paying, white classes by capitalizing on the "unnatural," "savage" black-skinned people.

Douglas explains the ways that white culture in the United States destroys black bodies by controlling the sexuality of black people.  Black women are characterized as either Jezebels who have no control over their sexuality and act as temptresses (36) or Mammies who are viewed as asexual maternal figures who are obedient and never act out of line (41).  Black women slaves were in forced labor and therefore unable to fit into Western concepts of the delicate lady.  Black men were stereotyped as Violent Bucks who were sexually aggressive and needed to be controlled (45).  I believe that these stereotypes that Douglas explicates are foundations of white culture in the United States are are still present in some form today.

These are some tough and bitter thoughts to swallow as a member of the United States.  How can I as a white female who has benefited from a nation that swells with pride in true understanding of freedom, all the while oppressing black bodies in slavery, with Jim Crow laws, and a criminal justice system that grossly over represents black people?  I think the first step is be aware of the dangers of being unable to step back from our nation-state and critically examine it.

As a Christian leader, I find it so difficult to critically look at the ways that the United States nation has oppressed people;  I have a narrative in my head that screams "YOU CAN'T BE AMERICAN IF YOU DON'T LOVE AMERICA!" Perhaps it is the puppets from Team America shouting this in my head, reminding me how strongly people in the United States connect their worth with being American.  Yet it is vital for me as a Christian leader to expose the ways that nationalism is working within Christian churches to make it impossible for a Christian to critique what the United States government does.

Cavanaugh states that his "basic argument is that when a direct, unmediated relationship is posited between America and a transcendent reality, either God or freedom, there is a danger that the state will be divinized" (Kindle 1054).  If we say that America means freedom, there is absolutely a link between America and God.  But here's the issue: America does not mean freedom for some people.  For Black-skinned people, America has meant being dehumanized by slavery, stereotyped as sexually aggressive and uncontrollable, and being excessively jailed and pushed into poverty.  Douglas speaks to the ways that the Black church has found ways to encounter God as a source of freedom over and against what white supremacy of American culture has handed to them.

How do we as Christian people step away from the nationalism of the United States and begin to critically change the ways we see what it means to have freedom for all?  How can we separate out patriotism and the love of God?  Cavanaugh and Douglas expose the ways that the United States, white culture, and religion have fused into a myth that freedom for all is found here in America.  TEAM AMERICA: World Police is able to point to their arguments in ridiculous and exaggerated ways while still exposing the the same concept: America does not mean freedom for all.  We need to take one step back and engage with the oppression that US nationalism causes the Other.