Christmas Message from Bishop Benhase

There have been pregnancy announcements that were easier to receive than the one Joseph received from his betrothed, Mary. Discovering your fiancé is pregnant before the wedding isn’t exactly novel in the history of human relationships, but when you know you’re not the father, it’s still difficult news to receive. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that since Joseph was a decent guy, he swallowed hard, accepted the news, and vowed not to put Mary through any “public disgrace.” Then, as we all know, the angel intervened.

But what Joseph hadn’t yet discovered was that God has never been averse to “public disgrace.” In fact, God has welcomed it. Part of God’s very nature, God’s modus operendi if you will, is God’s continuing vulnerability to “public disgrace” in human eyes. For what other term could we possibly use to describe first the Incarnation and then the Cross? None of us can understand the mystery of God becoming human until we first get it through our hardened hearts that God is a flagrant flaunter of the proper and seemly. The Bible is chock full of examples of God not caring one whit for what we humans see as respectable behavior.

There was an early Church heresy called Docetism. It comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem.” It bothered these early heretics that God would become human; that God would enter the same diseased and alienated flesh as ours and become fully as we are. They thought it was no way for any respectable God to act. It was so messy and uncouth. So, they argued Jesus only “seemed” like he was human, sort of like one of the gods in Greek mythology who took on a human form, but only for short time.

But we Christians contend that God fully entered our humanity in the birth of Jesus. God entered every part of our confused and broken humanity at Christmas and began his journey toward our healing and transformation. Beginning in Bethlehem, Jesus picked up our humanity on his back and carried it on this journey all the way to the cross, where in his sacrifice for our sins, he completed that healing and transformation. And then he took our humanity, healed and transformed, into heaven at his ascension.

For many, that’s no way for a respectable God to act. Shouldn’t a proper God hold us personally accountable for our unrighteousness? Any God worth his salt would insist we do something to deserve being carried on his back. Such a God is an affront to our sensibilities that demand we earn what we receive; that insist we be judged by our merits alone; that dictate suitable behavior of which no Pharisee would disapprove.

Yet, God doesn’t care at all about being proper in our eyes. Any God who’d be willing to be born in a stable behind an over-booked inn in a backwater town like Bethlehem wouldn’t be too proud to share his lot with the likes of you and me in a place like Georgia. That truth sinks thoroughly into our hearts when we stop long enough in our over-booked lives to trust that’s what God has done in the birth of Jesus. God became fully and “disgracefully” human in Jesus. As we learn to trust that truth more each day, we will begin to behave just as “disgracefully” with one another.

+Scott

 

Research released this fall illuminated something I’ve had a hunch about for some time: Many Christians, even those who claim they hold orthodox belief, actually have theological convictions that aren’t congruent with the Church’s traditional teaching. In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising. We all have a tendency to believe that what we believe is right because, well, we’re the ones who believe it. So then what we believe must be orthodox. Of course, that’s a non sequitur. But sin in our lives leads us to one non sequitur after another, does it not?

This particular research showed divergence from orthodox teaching in a number of areas, but the one that showed the largest gap between the Church’s teaching and research participants’ belief concerned the work of God’s redemptive grace. In the research, two-thirds of the participants said that we’re reconciled with God by our own initiative and then God responds to our initiative with grace. So, we first seek God out and only then does God’s mercy and forgiveness become operative in our lives. This has its own internal logic based on Enlightenment constructs of individualism, fairness, and reciprocity (the old quid pro quo, as it were). It makes sense to us. It sounds like it should be the way God works. It has a certain truthiness to it, as Stephen Colbert might say. As Americans who are steeped in deep internal codes of personal responsibility, we like the idea that we have a co-starring role to play in our own drama of redemption. The problem is: That’s NEVER been the orthodox teaching of the Church.

And that brings us to the 5th Century Englishman, Pelagius. Yes, he was a Brit so we Anglicans have to claim him. He’s in our spiritual family tree. He’s like that crazy great uncle we have that no one in the family wants to acknowledge, but own him we must. Pelagius contended that humans first choose God by their own personal gumption. Our sin, original or otherwise, did not, according to Pelagius, impair our ability to choose wisely by choosing God. In other words, we must choose to appropriate the benefits of God’s grace through the power of our own will. This came to be known as Pelagianism. Two Church Councils, first in 418 A.D. at Carthage and then in Ephesus in 431 A.D., rightly rejected Pelagianism. A century later a spinoff of Pelagianism, known rather non-creatively as Semi-Pelagianism, became popular. This sought to affirm the orthodox teaching about humanity’s original sin, while at the same time still insisting that we must take the initiative for God’s grace to be operative. In 529, the Council of Orange said “nice try Semi-Pelagianists,” and rejected their views.

As I listen to Christians in America, it seems to me that the vast majority of us are de facto Semi-Pelagianists. God’s grace makes us uneasy. Grace doesn’t feel right or fair. It’s like we’re getting something we don’t deserve or didn’t have to work for at all; that we didn’t get it the old fashioned way by earning it. It’s as if someone gave us something exceptionally amazing at Christmas, something it turns out that we really loved and needed, and it’s not that we just forgot to get him anything in return, we actually chose not to get him anything at all. EXACTLY. And, for me, that’s what puts the “merry” in Christmas.

+Scott

 

“For you kids watching at home, Santa just is white…You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too.” – A Cable News Anchor

What’s really sad about the above quote is that people who heard this news anchor say these words on a “news” station might actually be led to believe that she, as a news reporter, was reporting the truth. I’m intentionally withholding her name and network because I have no desire to pile on, adding to the national hullabaloo her clearly ignorant statement has created. That just keeps us all deeply entrenched in our own tribes and then, depending on the issue and the instance, we get mobilized into attack or defense mode for our tribe (if you’ve followed this story then you’ve seen that’s exactly what’s happened).

What I find much more interesting, important, and therefore more to the point of our sinful humanity, is the pattern into which we all, bar none, are inclined: Creating God in our own image. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all want a god who looks and acts like us. We want a god who shares our prejudices, proclivities, and politics. We want a god who agrees with us so we can rest easy knowing we’re OK, while those who don’t look and act like us are bound for eternal judgment. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows an Episcopal priest at the breakfast table with his wife saying to her: “Darling, last night I had the most wonderful dream. I dreamt that God agreed with me on everything.” I’m sure God finds this more than a little bit amusing.

But the irony in the news anchor’s ignorance was that she was on to the truth: That was exactly what God did in the incarnation of Jesus at Christmas…but with a twist. God became as we are. God became fully human and not just an idealized form of humanity. Jesus became human into the same wonderful, diseased, joyous, alienated, beautiful, and sinful humanity as the rest of us. And here’s the twist: he became human, not so he could be like us, but rather so we might be like him. He came to take us, in the complexity and messiness of our humanity, into the divine life of God.

Vassar Miller in her poem: The Wisdom of Insecurity, wrote this: God will not play our games nor join our fun, Does not give tit for tat, parade His glories. Christmas celebrates the most profound of acts: God fully sharing our humanity in Jesus. But in our celebration, let’s be clear: In becoming human God doesn’t share our prejudices, proclivities, and politics. God doesn’t play our petty tribal games, nor does God engage in silly, retributive one-up-man-ship. God comes to us at Christmas, not to play games, but to reveal his nature and to redeem the world in and through Jesus.

Jesus is black, brown, red, yellow, and yes, white, and every other possible hue of human skin because he’s God incarnate, the Creator and Redeemer of humankind. In a way that I’m sure she didn’t intend it, the news anchor in question, in a clueless, backdoor way, got it kind of, somewhat right. Santa, however, is pretty much all pink with a blue nose and toes. You know how cold it is at the North Pole, don’t you?

+Scott

 

Christmas Edition (eCrozier #159)

The Divine Decision to take up human flesh in Jesus at Christmas is a sign that God has never given up on the world. It’s a sign that God has graced humanity in the person of Jesus. So, the creation is good, not because of its elemental goodness, but because God has chosen to grace it by being born into it. Such grace isn’t our doing. It’s the Light of God in Jesus shining into creation, a creation that’s bent and disordered by human sin.

Part of our bent, disorderly sinful nature is shown in our fears. When fear grips us we don’t act in love. When fear rules our lives we don’t forgive. When fear becomes our guiding principle our compassion isn’t what people see. When fear rules the day we’re more apt to be violent, like when an animal is cornered. When we become enveloped in our fears, we too can act like cornered animals.

But God has done something for creation in Jesus that puts fear to flight. Jesus is the ultimate word to us that we’ve nothing to fear, even from God. And many people do fear God, but not in the Biblical sense of being humble before God. Many people actually fear that God is out to get them. This is due in some part by our cultural Christmas celebration. You know the song: “You better watch out; you better not cry-why? Because Jesus is coming to town.” If you’ve been good you go to heaven, but if you’ve been bad you go to hell. Of course, that’s horrible theology. It denies the very foundation of God’s grace.

Anyway, a God who wanted us to be afraid of Him never would’ve been born into the world as a helpless child. If God risked becoming a vulnerable baby, then we’re going to be just fine held in the hands of such a God. That’s the liberating good news embedded in the Incarnation. God plops Jesus down in the midst of humanity and says: “Here’s my baby boy. In order to prove how much I love you, I’m willing to let you do what you want with him!” And on Good Friday, we took God up on that offer.

The truth of God’s incarnation in Jesus directs us to look upon one another in a new light. Other human beings don’t simply share our genetic code. They, like us, have had their lives graced by the incarnation of Jesus. Every human being now embodies God’s image graced by Jesus. Thus, we cannot stand idly by while Jesus is homeless. We can’t ignore God while she’s hungry. We can’t pretend to be unconcerned about Jesus when he is ill-clothed. We can’t look away when God is treated with contempt and injustice. We embrace one another now because God has embraced all of us in the birth of Jesus.

Jesus then is the gift from God that can’t be returned even if we have the original sale’s receipt. Jesus might be the only real, true gift we receive this Christmas. Many gifts are in fact a quid pro quo exchange, where we find out if what we gave others is as nice as what they gave us. And if we didn’t reciprocate with a gift of equal or greater value, then we feel guilty. The gift of Jesus, however, can’t be reciprocated in any way. Jesus is the pure, unmerited gift from God. As the angel said to the shepherds, “don’t be afraid.” At Christmas, God thought of everything.

+Scott

 

eCrozier #70

Good is the Flesh is the name of a Brian Wren poem that composer Jack Redmond put to music. Good is the flesh. We must believe that. Jesus becoming one of us is God’s way of saying we’re worth being born and worth saving. As I get older and my flesh sags, it’s important to remember that my flesh is good, that Jesus came to earth not to save my soul, but all of me, including my sagging flesh. But many don’t believe their flesh is good, so they either treat their flesh like an amusement park or, as it begins to sag, they treat it like a construction zone. Christmas means that our flesh and blood matters.

The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance argued that at Christmas Jesus enters every part of our diseased and alienated humanity and heals and transforms it. And this doesn’t stop with Christmas. Jesus takes us with him to the cross. And then he takes our healed and transformed humanity into heaven at his ascension. Thus, our humanity (and not just an idealized form of it) has been ascended into heaven. That’s why I can say without hesitation that God loves your flesh and God loves my flesh. Good is the flesh. When I see the world as it is, I have to force myself to remember Torrance’s insight. No matter how degraded the flesh, Jesus healed and transformed all human flesh at Christmas.

When I was a priest in East Cleveland, there were three Christmases in a row when walking into the sacristy on Christmas Eve I found the window broken out, the cabinet pried open, and a couple of bottles of communion wine missing. This amused me. It never amused the Altar Guild. But think of the absurdity of the thief’s act. He had to shinny up our drainpipe, break the window, climb through, and then pry open locked cabinets. There were silver and gold vessels for the taking and all he took were two bottles of wine. I joked after the third time that it was probably Santa Claus. Since he didn’t find any milk and cookies waiting for him, he took the wine. I thought it was funny, but I laughed alone. That’s when I noticed the thief’s blood. It was all over the counter near the broken window. It seems he paid in blood for the two bottles of wine. The Altar Guild was outraged. “We’ll all get AIDS if we touch that.” But I thought to myself: “Maybe only if we drink it. We catch a lot more when we drink Jesus’ blood in the Eucharist.” So, I cleaned up the blood and boarded up the window once again.

When Christmas came next year, my people had a plan. They were going to catch the thief. They organized a vigil for the sacristy. I suggested we put a bottle of wine on the window ledge with a note saying: “Merry Christmas! Drink up! You’ll catch what we caught.” But he didn’t come that year. The Grinch who stole the Christmas wine had either been scared off by the vigil, found better pickings elsewhere, or stayed away because of the blood. I like to think it was because of the blood. Maybe he didn’t think two bottles of wine were worth shedding blood? Maybe he saw a deeper theological meaning to his act? That’s what I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe he came to mass that night and shared the Christmas miracle with us. Maybe he was in my confirmation class the next year? Some of those guys looked edgy. Maybe he drank of the blood of Jesus and realized that his own flesh and blood were worth something now?

Good is the flesh.

+Scott