Sunday, August 15, 2010

Thomas a Kempis

1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter K
by Daniel Harrell

Thirteen years ago I started an annual sermon series during the summer concerning those personalities from church history who fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. As there have been numerous noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers) it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. So I did, while at the same time giving my listening congregation plenty of heads up so they could plan their summer weekend getaways well in advance. Actually, among the things that folks at my former church said they would miss most upon my departure were the church fathers. In fact, last summer my church fathers sermons went on tour. I was invited to speak at the Cornerstone Music Festival in rural Illinois, sponsored by the Jesus People USA. The festival featured some 500 bands, mostly of the thrash metal variety with explicitly Christian undertones despite names like The Dark Romantics, Manic Drive, Gasoline Heart and The Classic Crime. However, not wanting their festival to solely about heavy metal music, the Jesus People invite Jesus speakers each year to discuss a variety of topics, which is how I got on the docket. The Church Fathers rock.

Of course if you know your ABCs, you’re probably wondering why 13 years only has me at the letter K. The problem was that with so many patristic heroes clustered around letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas—it took me a while to get out of there. Since then, I looked at the Venerable Bede, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairveaux and Basil the Great under B, John Chrysostom, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin and the baroque painter, Carravagio under C. Letter D brought Dionysisus the Areopagite, Dominic and Dante; followed by E and Jonathan Edwards, Meister Eckhart, and the 20th century poet, T.S. Eliot. Letter F featured the third century African slave girl Felicitas, Francis of Assisi and Charles Finney, with an all-Gregory-all-the-time series under letter G: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Gregory of Nanzianzus, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great. Letter H brought Hippolytus, Handel, Hildegard and the poetry of George Herbert; while the I-List included Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch and Ignatius of Loyola. Last year just left time for two J-Fathers: Justin Martyr and Saint Jerome.

My rationale for taking an annual peek at these people comes from my own conviction that our faith derives in no small part from the faithful personalities who’ve lived it and wrestled with it through crucial moments in church history. While we Protestants may not venerate these important people as saints, we cannot separate their contributions from our own doctrines and practice. We may hold to sola Scriptura (the Bible alone as source of authority), but interpreting and obeying the Bible necessarily stands on the interpretive and obedient shoulders of past believers and thinkers. Tradition is the memory of the church. And as Augustine argued, we are who we are only through our memories.

Patristic scholars in the house rightly note that I have exceedingly stretched the definition of “church father.” Technically, to be a Church Father, you had to live in the first five centuries AD. But again, we’re American Protestants, we do what we want. Ergo, on Labor Day, just in time for summer’s end, we’ll wallow in existentialist angst with the renown philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Today, we set our sights on the 15th century Catholic mystic, Thomas a Kempis, author of the devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ, second only to the Bible as the most widely translated book in Christian literature.

I first read The Imitation of Christ in college, and was captured by its call to a simple but intense instruction on loving God. It didn’t do much for my grades. As Thomas a Kempis wrote, “Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise.” Not being much of a mystic myself, I initially found much of this writing unnerving. But as I allowed myself to be drawn in, I gained some crucial perspective by which to live the Christian life. “The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?”

Not only am I not much of a mystic, but I struggle with prayer too. Thomas’ own prayers have at times become my own: “My Lord Jesus I beseech you, do not be far from me, but come quickly and help me, for vain thoughts have risen in my heart and worldly fears have troubled me sorely. How shall I break them down? How shall I go unhurt without your help? ‘I shall go before you,’ says our Lord; ‘I shall drive away the pride of your heart; then I shall set open to you the gates of spiritual knowledge and show you the privacy of my heart.’ O Lord, do as you say, and then all wicked imaginings shall flee from me. Truly, this is my hope and my only comfort—to fly to you in every trouble, to trust steadfastly in you, to call inwardly upon you, and to abide patiently your coming and your heavenly consolations.”

Thomas was born in the German town of Kempen, from whence he gets his name. He attended a school in Holland led by members of the monastic order, Brothers of the Common Life. So impressed by their personal devotion to prayer, simplicity and their deep relationship with God, Thomas decided to devote his own life to their ideals. He entered their Dutch monastery when he was 19 and spent the rest of his long life within its walls. The Brothers tried to get Thomas to engage in the practical affairs and ministries of monastic life, but it quickly became clear that his passion was for meditation and prayer. So they left him to it. Though The Imitation of Christ is by far his most popular work, he wrote a number of sermons, letters and hymns, each reflecting the mystical spirituality of his times, the sense of being absorbed by God. “There are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ,” Thomas wrote. “Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.”

Whether the title of his book derives from the 1 Corinthians 11 is unknown, but verse 1 inescapably comes to mind. The apostle Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” It’s a sentence few Christians would dare utter since the last thing we want anybody to do is model their spiritual lives after ours. It’s one thing to imitate Christ, quite another to imitate Christians. Author Anne Rice made headlines a few years back by announcing that she had become a Christian; and then made headlines a few weeks ago when she announced she had changed her mind. She rejected “Christianity” in favor of “Christ” as if the Body of Christ on earth were somehow separable from Jesus himself. Blogger, friend and former congregant Tim Dalrymple, in a recent article entitled On the Dire Need For the Imitation of Christ, writes that “It may be tempting to separate oneself from all the faults of the Church in one shining moment of righteous defiance, but this cannot be right. Scorning other Christians does not mean that you are a better follower of Christ. It means that you suffer from spiritual pride, a desire to curry favor with the world, and theological incoherence. There are no sins in American Christendom that are unique to American Christendom. The Church is the body of Christ in the world—a broken body, not a congregation of the sanctified but a fellowship of sinners seeking to follow Christ together.” Like it or not, to imitate Christ is to invite others to imitate you.

This is where a’ Kempis can help. He writes, “Do not think yourself better than others lest, perhaps, you be accounted worse before God Who knows what is inside people. Do not take pride in your good deeds, for God’s judgments differ from human judgment and what pleases people often displeases Him. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. It does no harm to esteem yourself less than anyone else, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one person. The humble live in continuous peace, while in the hearts of the proud are envy and frequent anger.”

To imitate Jesus you have to love Jesus enough to want to do it. And this is hard. The life that Christ calls Christians to live is not the kind of life we want to live. We want is a life free from hardship and death, not a life characterized by hardship and death. But Jesus was clear that to follow him meant taking up crosses. Dalrymple argues, “God did not become human, endure the indignities and humiliations of the human condition, suffer rejection and persecution, torture and death, so that we might live comfortable lives of suburban complacency—lives more characterized by rampant consumerism than radical obedience, by cultural accommodation than counter-cultural witness, by potlucks and seminars than by persecutions and suffering for the sake of righteousness. If the Church today lives at peace with the world, it is because it has become so like the world, so harmless to it, that it no longer presents a substantial threat to the ways of worldly evil.”

“Jesus has always had many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross,” Thomas wrote. “All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. …Those, on the contrary, who love Jesus for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them consolation, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus—love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!”

We received an email from Dawn’s sister Kimberly who is finishing up an internship at an organization called Ecological Concerns for Hunger Organization, or ECHO. It’s a Christian Aid organization devoted to honoring God through sustainable hunger solutions. Their mission is to equip people with resources and skills to reduce hunger and improve the lives of the poor. Energized by her own faith, my sister-in-law will travel to Burkina Faso and then on to Thailand to work with ECHO among the poor and refugees there. In doing so she will follow in the footsteps of another former ECHO intern and staff member, Cheryl Beckett, a pastor’s kid who worked in Afghanistan for the past five years with women in nutritional garden projects and mother and child health. You know Cheryl as one of the ten Christians murdered in Afghanistan on August 6. We prayed for their families last Sunday. Kimberly wrote that the ECHO community was deeply grieved by this senseless tragedy, but at the same time they recognized that hers was by no means a life wasted. To the contrary, hers and the lives of the others who gave up so much for the sake of serving others displayed a unmistakable beauty and goodness that is an imitation of Christ.

Granted, such a perspective is not shared by all. Online comments to the report of Cheryl’s deaths were sharp. “Countries like Afghanistan are barbaric nations made up of people whose culture is still steeped deeply into mentalities of centuries ago,” one blogger wrote. “Hate to say this but they had no business going into that region. People have to want to be helped in order for this type of mission to have any kind of success.” “All I ever needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11. The lesson? Take care of your own.”

Paradoxically, such comments only verified the sacred nature of Cheryl’s service, of hers and the others’ radical obedience. Thomas wrote that “To carry the cross, to love the cross, to flee honors, to endure contempt gladly, to despise self and wish to be despised, to suffer any adversity and loss, to desire no prosperous days on earth—this makes no human sense. If you rely upon yourself, you can do none of these things, but if you trust in the Lord, strength will be given you from heaven.” “Blessed is she who appreciates what it is to love Jesus and who despises herself for the sake of Jesus. Give up all other love for His, since He wishes to be loved alone above all things. Affection for creatures is deceitful and inconstant, but the love of Jesus is true and enduring. Love Him, then; keep Him as a friend. He will not leave you as others do, or let you suffer lasting death. Sometime, whether you will or not, you will have to part with everything. Cling, therefore, to Jesus in life and death; trust yourself to the glory of Him who alone can help you when all others fail.”

Granted, few of us will venture into the mountain villages in Afghanistan. Few will even venture into the poor or dangerous neighborhoods of Minneapolis. But there remain plenty of opportunities to imitate Christ. For Paul, the issue was a simple one of abstaining from meat that had been part of pagan sacrifices. Eager to eat it and demonstrate that there was no power in it for those who believe in Jesus, he demurred once he discovered that others might be harmed by his freedom. As Cheryl Beckett’s family wrote about her, “Cheryl loved and respected the Afghan people. She denied herself many freedoms in order to abide by Afghan law and custom.”

To love Christ more than all things and imitate him will bring scorn and persecution from others. But it will also bring power to confront the darkness that resides in individuals, communities and institutions. It will provide salt to preserve what is good, and light to show the way forward. Through the imitation of Christ, our words and deeds can make plain what is truly True and truly Good and truly Beautiful.

Thomas a Kempis, prayed: What, Lord, is the trust which I have in this life, or what is my greatest comfort among all the things that appear under heaven? Is it not You, O Lord, my God, Whose mercies are without number? Where have I ever fared well but for You? Or how could things go badly when You were present? I had rather be poor for Your sake than rich without You. I prefer rather to wander on the earth with You than to possess heaven without You. Where You are there is heaven. You are my desire. In none can I fully trust to help me in my necessities, but in You alone, my God. You are my hope. You are my confidence. You are my consoler, most faithful in every need. Even though exposing me to various temptations and hardships, You Who are accustomed to prove Your loved ones in a thousand ways, order all this for my good. In You, therefore, O Lord God, I place all my hope and my refuge. On You I cast all my troubles and anguish. It will not serve me to have many friends, nor will powerful helpers be able to assist me, nor prudent advisers to give useful answers, nor the books of learned men to console, nor any precious substance to win my freedom, nor any place, secret and beautiful though it be, to shelter me, if You Yourself do not assist, comfort, console, instruct, and guard me. For all things which seem to be for our peace and happiness are nothing when You are absent, and truly confer no happiness. You, indeed, are the fountain of all good, the height of life, the depth of all that can be spoken. To trust in You above all things is our strongest comfort.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Good Boy

Matthew 21:23-32

by Daniel Harrell

Just found a new house to buy after looking at what seemed like hundreds on line and on foot. It’s a nice first world problem to have. The seller was telling his next door neighbor how a family from Boston was going to be moving in. “That’s funny,” the neighbor replied, “our church just welcomed a new minister from Boston.” Not knowing which one of you is our new neighbor, my relaying this story did evoke varying shades of concern—even worry, perhaps, about being a minister with a member of the congregation next door. But really, what’s worse?: To be a minister living next to a member of his congregation? Or being a member of a congregation and living next to the minister? I can already see it. You’ve got your Sunday morning coffee and you walk out to the driveway for the paper, and there’s the Reverend: “Hey you better hurry up or you’re going to be late for church!”

For Jesus it was always worse to be next to the ministers—which for him meant the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes, whom along with John the Baptist he labeled “a brood of vipers.” Of course John called just about everybody a snake too, including King Herod himself, which cost him his head last Sunday. Someone remarked this past week how once you’ve lost your head, there isn’t much left to say, and thus I wrap up my summer long series on John the Baptist today. And yet even though this is the last sermon, it’s hardly the last word. John lived as the one whom Isaiah prophesied would “prepare the way for the Lord.” But John’s death prepared the way for Jesus too. Like John, Jesus antagonized the ruling authorities by exposing their evil cloaked behind veils of piety and pride. Like John, Jesus enraged those lustful for power and position. Like John, Jesus was arrested on trumped up charges. Like John, Jesus’ enemies wanted him dead. But due to his popularity, as with John, Jesus’ enemies had to await a more opportune time.

Passover week in Jerusalem provided the opportunity. Today’s passage is typically rolled out on Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem astride a prophesied colt to shouts of “Hosanna!” Jesus then enters the Temple Courts—the House of God—significant for those who know his true identity. God had not been so tangibly present in his house since the book of Ezekiel. He now steps back inside—incognito save for the children who sing out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” In the gospels children are always tuned in to divine realities. The religious professionals—the chief priests and the Pharisees who were supposed to be tuned in too—instead take offense. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ parable a couple weeks back about children playing wedding and funeral games in the streets that the grown-ups refused to join in. Same thing here. The kids cheer Jesus as the coming King but the adults can only scowl. Granted, Jesus had done some remarkable things, but nothing to warrant such exalted praise. Such only was reserved for the promised and pedigreed Messiah, not for some scandalously born, homeless, wandering Galilean carpenter. In response to their insistence that he silence the singing children, Jesus cited Psalm 8—one with blatant Messianic overtones: “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.”

As we saw a couple of weeks back, believing in Jesus does take childlike faith. But rather than such qualities like simplicity, innocence and trust; childlike faith in Jesus is more about desperation, dependency and powerlessness. It’s why the gospel always portrays despised tax collectors and desperate sinners as the truly faithful rather than the externally religious. By citing Psalm 8, however, Jesus gets in another dig at his detractors. Not only do the kids get it right, but the kids get even. Jesus only used the first part of the Psalm. The rest goes like this: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have built a fortress to silence your enemies and leave speechless your adversaries.”

However what really angered the Pharisees in Mathew 21 was Jesus’ going all John the Baptist on them in the Temple courts. Upon his arrival he chased out those who bought and sold there and turned over their tables. We usually interpret Jesus’ clearing the Temple as his condemning the commercialization of faith, as an indictment against Christian investment schemes or health and wealth preaching. But in fact, buying and selling were necessary parts of proper Temple business. The Temple was where animal sacrifices to God occurred. The Temple system was all about having a right relationship with the holy God. In accordance with Torah, sacrificial animals had to be perfect. Rightly relating to God cost you the best of your herds, flocks and crops—animals without any spot or blemish. But if you lived any distance from Jerusalem, getting your bull or goat to the Temple without dinging it up was pretty difficult. Therefore as a service to the faithful, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or bird at the door. You’d bring your cash, change it into Temple currency, buy your bird and give it to a priest to sacrifice. Sort of like parking an ATM in the Commons in case you forgot your offering. It was all very convenient and very kosher. So what was the problem?

The problem was not the sacrificial system, but how the people treated it. Rather than see it as God’s mercy for their mistakes, they treated as license to live as they pleased. They cheated and stole, they murdered and committed adultery, they lied, swore falsely and chased after shiny idols made of metal and stone—and then used the Temple system to cover their backside. They’d sin and sacrifice only to go out and sin again. The prophet Jeremiah stood in Temple centuries prior and conveyed God’s displeasure. Jeremiah hollered, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to idols, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”

Jesus quoted this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. He sternly said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you understand how the people mistreated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so mad. By turning the tables and blocking traffic, Jesus effectively brought a halt to the sacrificial charade. Jesus also quotes Isaiah, saying that the Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” The idea from the beginning was that outsiders would always be welcome inside. The Lord is the Lord of all people. God did choose Israel alright, but they were to be an example of his grace, not sole beneficiaries. Somehow they let it all go to their heads, so that by the time we get to Jeremiah, the Temple had become like some exclusive country club. God’s people, rather than putting out the welcome mat for their unbelieving neighbors, treated the Temple as a sanctuary from their unbelieving neighbors. Like ministers who shut their shades so that their next door neighbors can’t see the life they really live inside.

The religious leaders would have gotten the message. They understood what Jeremiah and Isaiah condemned. How dare Jesus apply it to them! They demanded to know: “By what authority are you doing these things—teaching, healing, taking over the Temple? Who gave you this sanction? What are your credentials?” Which finally brings us to our John the Baptist moment.

Never being one to give a straight answer, Jesus decided to play a game. You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. Here it is: John’s baptism, where did it come from? From heaven or humans? Was John truly the returning Elijah, or just an imposter? Was his water really akin to Noah’s flood and the Red Sea, or merely a publicity stunt? Was John’s purpose to prepare the way for the Lord? If so, that would mean Jesus is Lord. There’s no way that the Pharisees could admit that because they didn’t believe that. They couldn’t believe that. But they also couldn’t say that John’s authority was merely human either. The crowd would crucify them. To them John was a prophet made into a martyr once his head got put on that platter. So they said, “We don’t know.”

I mentioned a book at the beginning of this sermon series entitled Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz. In it she describes how part of the problem in being wrong is that there is no associated feeling of being wrong while being wrong. The whole reason that it’s possible to be wrong is that while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. Ironically, the only thing that being wrong feels like is being right. And it’s because we love that feeling so much that we fail so often at relationships and at ever knowing the truth. She remarks how throughout human history, no one has yet to master the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” “This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it can provide.”

Instead, we get stuck playing stupid and caught in ridiculous arguments like the one Kathryn Schultz overheard one day in New York:

Man: You said pound cake.

Woman: I didn’t say pound cake, I said crumb cake.

Man: You said pound cake.

Woman: Don’t tell me what I said.

Man: You said pound cake.

Woman: I said crumb cake.

Man: I actually saw the crumb cake but didn’t get it because you said pound cake.

Woman: I said crumb cake.

Man: Well I heard pound cake.

Woman: Then you obviously weren’t listening. Crumb cake doesn’t even sound like pound cake.

Man: Well, maybe you accidentally said pound cake.

Woman: I said crumb cake.

Silly when what’s at stake is crumb cake (or pound cake). Serious when what’s at stake is our souls. And yet each of us instinctively puts forward a stalwart defense against the awareness of our wrongness. It’s a defense so strong, so supple, mysterious and private that even veteran sinners cannot track its ways. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga calls it self-deception, a “shadowy phenomenon whereby we pull the wool over our own consciences. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppress or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn and elevate what we know to be false. We become our own dupes, playing the role of both perpetrator and victim. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite. We actually forget that certain things are wrong and that we have done them. To the extent that we are self-deceived, we occupy a twilight zone in which we make up reality as we go along, a twilight zone in which the shortest distance between two points is a labyrinth.”

The only cure for self-deception is the discipline of self-suspicion. Heeding your inner John the Baptist. Allowing the possibility that some days you are a snake—that you may need a trip to the river for a douse of repentance. That maybe you are wrong and need to change and do right rather than stay stuck in the righteousness you make for yourself.

Jesus pulls out another parable. “A farmer had two sons” which to the Pharisees would have immediately brought to mind all the places in Scripture where there was a chance to choose the right thing. Cain and Abel. Esau and Jacob. The older brother and the Prodigal Son. “The farmer went to his first son and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the fields.’ The son said, ‘No!’ But later, he changed his mind; he repented and went. The father approached his other son and said the same thing. The second son said, ‘Yes sir!’ but he did not go. Now, which of the two sons did what his father wanted?” The answer is obvious for those who can say “I was wrong.” But self-deception is a very powerful defense. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite. We put a move on ourselves.

And therefore, “The tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God ahead of you,” Jesus says to the Pharisees. “John the Baptist came and showed you the right way, but you wouldn’t take it. The tax collectors and the prostitutes did, but even when you saw this happening, you did not change your minds and join in.” But why would they? “Tax collectors” and “prostitutes” was Biblical code for degenerates, outcasts and losers. To see such people go for Jesus’ Kingdom wrongly verified for the religious folks that Jesus’ so-called kingdom was not the Kingdom of God.

In what I’m sure was an unintentional riff on Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of childlike faith and the lost being found, author Kathryn Schultz compares being wrong to being a toddler lost in New York. “There is a sudden awareness of the immensity of the world and of our own extreme smallness, vulnerability and confusion within it. The panic, the anguish, the absolute fear that we don’t have the ability or the resources to find our way again. And yet as painful as that sounds, it can also be redemptive. Like a toddler lost in New York, drastic error it makes us young again in both the hardest and best of ways. Lose a kid in the middle of Times Square and sooner or later he’ll look up in awe. Likewise, most of us eventually manage to look up from the despair of wrongness and feel something of a child’s wonder at the vastness and the mystery of life. This is the thing about fully experiencing our wrongness—it makes possible that rarest of occurrences: real change. At the same time this also explains why we can’t realize we’re wrong: we don’t want to change. It’s why pure wrongness is so hard, so heated and full of emotion.” And yet it is the place where John the Baptist draws us. To what is, in essence, a spiritual construction site, “all pits and wrecking balls and cranes: the place where we are destroyed in order to be rebuilt, where all the ground gives way” and, by grace, “all the ladders start.”

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Unpolitical Action

Matthew 14:1-12

by Daniel Harrell

Among the many new experiences during my first two months here in the Twin Cities was attending the most recent Edina City Council meeting. As you know, the Council voted us permission to move ahead on the sale of a portion of Colonial property for development into a senior living facility. The meeting was both long and lively. When I arrived most of the seats were already full, except for one right in the middle of the opposition. Fortunately for me, no one there knew my true identity. As the meeting went on (and on), suspense started to build as to the final outcome. The uncertainty made it sort of exciting. After much deliberation, the Council finally voted 3-2 in favor. Afterwards I spoke with some of the opponents and asked whether it wouldn’t make sense going forward to work together to welcome the residents of the housing development into the neighborhood. “No,” snarled one man, “this isn’t over yet.” Again, I was glad he didn’t know who I was. Still, I enjoyed the experience. It was good to watch democracy at work.

Despite 23 years in close proximity to both the Massachusetts State House and Boston City Hall, I never made it to any government meetings there that I remember. It’s not that there weren’t topics of importance; I just never figured my presence would matter. Not that that stopped one of my predecessors. For 33 years, a flamboyant Park Street Church minister named Arcturus Zodiac Conrad arrived at church Sunday mornings in his horse drawn limousine, dressed in white tie and tails underneath his preaching robe. His sermon topics regularly engaged the social and political issues of the early 20th century: the necessity of prohibition, whether bank deposits should be guaranteed, the cost of coal, playing sports on Sunday, municipal corruption and graft, the depraved presidency of FDR, and the modernist-fundamentalist controversy (best typified by the 1925 Scopes trial).

A firebrand of a preacher, Conrad rained down weekly brimstone on Boston’s saints and they loved it. However Conrad didn’t reserve his consecrated ire just for those gathered in the pews. Reportedly, whenever Conrad caught wind of wanton legislation being debated up at the State House, he’d bolt out of the church and charge up Park St. to confront the governor and legislators head on. Justifying his feisty engagement with the political powers, Conrad said, “[the church is] too much afraid of open collision. We spend our time parlaying about consequences. The apostles told the truth and told it straight without such adjustment as emasculates the truth declared. …The atmosphere of true spirituality is not rose-scented. It smells of battle. The men who have shaped the destiny of nations have been men who have breathed the flame that was designed to consume them and who have grown vigorous in such an atmosphere.”

Times have changed. Expectations that government will heel to the demands of a local congregation or minister are generally quite low—and perhaps even unwarranted. To entrust Christian morality to secular implementation is always a dubious enterprise. Whenever Christianity has sought legitimization from civil authority it usually loses its salt. Still, there are times when the people of God are compelled toward more confrontational postures even if the expectation is failure. John the Baptist (the ongoing subject of my summer sermons) held nothing back in railing against the religious establishment of his day for their woeful double standards, against the general populace for their total depravity, and against the political rulers for their wanton behavior.

Matthew 14 details John’s combative posture toward Herod Antipas, the ruling son of King Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was a Jewish tetrarch, one of four joint rulers who served under Caesar’s authority. He was vain and corrupt—no surprise given that his entire family tree rotted with incessant backbiting, backstabbing, conspiracy and bad manners. What particularly incited John’s indignation was Herod’s dumping his first wife (the daughter of the King of Arabia) in order to swipe the wife of his brother Philip. This move was in blatant violation of Torah, socially repugnant and just plain rude. Outraged, John lashed out against Herod and his former sister-in-law-now-wife, Herodias. As Herodias herself was complicit in all of this, John exposed her own sick and insatiable lust for power. Duly offended, Herodias screamed for John’s head.

Mark’s gospel portrays Herod with a trace of scruple: he recognized that John was a holy and righteous man. But Herod was also motivated by political prudence. He feared that beheading such a popular prophet would incite a riot. So rather than decapitate, Herod chose to incarcerate. Herodias was left to “nurse her grudge” against the belligerent Baptist until a more opportune time. Such a time arrived on Herod’s birthday where along with his sycophant friends, Herod partied hard, cranked the tunes and drank like a fish. Once everybody got all liquored up, in rolled the oversized cake. Perhaps anticipating the emergence of a regular run of the mill stripper, all eyes popped out when out popped instead the princess, the daughter of Herodias. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus names her Salome. Modern historians insist that a queen and princess would never have resorted to such behavior—which only goes to show how messed up they really were.

Salome must have danced a pretty erotic number because by the end of it, she had her stepfather swearing impulsively before his high ranking guests that he’d give her anything, “up to half his kingdom” Mark adds (even though Herod had no kingdom to grant). Quickly, before Herod sobered up and changed his mind, Salome raced to her mother and asked her what to ask for. Herodias didn’t blink. She wanted the head of the Baptist. So Salome sashayed back past the banquet table—where getting a morbid idea—she requested John’s head on a platter. Herod sobered up real quick at that. He was greatly distressed—grieved we read—stuck between saving an innocent man and saving face. Yet more unwilling to lose the latter, Herod relented and ordered John’s head served up.

John’s bold and righteous stand against Herod’s evil? It apparently failed. The party went on and John’s headless body went to the cemetery. If he’d kept his mouth shut, or at least been less brash, perhaps he could have made more of an impact. As it was, nothing changed. But isn’t that usually how it goes? Conrad railed against intoxication, sports on Sunday and the modernists in Boston, but prohibition was repealed, sports proliferate on Sundays, and the modernists have moved on to postmodernism. Churches continue to combat poverty and hunger, illiteracy, inequality and injustice, violence and war—but none of these things ever really go away. There are some successes of course, but just as often the recovering addict relapses, the hungry get hungry again, the violence continues.

Several years ago I worked with a young girl whose crack-addict mother occasionally made her daughter sleep on the porch while she partied inside. I tutored the girl as part of a church-sponsored homework assistance program where I also tried to instill some hope as we talked about faith and about Jesus. I tried to convince her that she didn’t have to stay trapped in her current life. The local church, adults like myself, the power of God—we were all willing and able to help. I thought we were making progress, but then one day she just quit coming. A city youth worker suspected she got caught up in crack herself. He said that’s usually how it goes.

So why bother? Why waste time on what seems so doomed to fail? Because that’s what it means to follow God. Back in Isaiah, God commanded his people to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor with shelter. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not to turn away from those who need your help. …if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” As God incarnate, Jesus exemplified God’s passion as he fed the hungry and confronted injustice and cared for the sick and preached good news to the poor. He defended the outcast and those stuck on the fringes of society—the least of humanity. Moreover, as fully human in Christ—as fully poor and scandalously human—God staked his own lot with the least of humanity. So much so that however you treat the least among people, Jesus said that was the same as doing it to him.

Interestingly, Jesus’ identification with the poor never made any of the poor prosperous. As far as we can tell, nobody who followed Jesus ever saw their social standing improve. If anything, most people who decided to follow Jesus and were not already poor and outcast became poor and outcast and seemingly doomed to failure themselves—it was somehow what a successful Christian life looked like.

It’s surely what the life of John the Baptist looked like. Which may be why Herod rightly linked John to Jesus. John not only served as the forerunner to Jesus with his life but with his death too. The gospels’ detailed description of John’s death previews Jesus’ own death. Like John, Jesus antagonized the ruling authorities by exposing their evil cloaked behind veils of piety and pride. Like John, Jesus enraged those lustful for power and position. Like John, Jesus was arrested on trumped up charges. Like John, Jesus’ enemies wanted him dead. But due to his popularity, as with John, Jesus’ enemies had to await a more opportune time.

Passover week in Jerusalem provided the opportunity. A raucous clearing of the Temple. A willing traitor for a friend. A riled up citizenry. A conflicted ruler, Pontius Pilate, stuck between saving an innocent man and saving face eventually acquiescing to the latter. Jesus’ bold and righteous stand against sin? It apparently failed. The party went on and Jesus’ pierced body went to the cemetery. If he’d kept his mouth shut, or at least been less radical, perhaps he could have made more of an impact. Perhaps he could have done more good. He could have definitely healed more people, fed more people, won over a few more converts. If only he’d listened to Peter and skirted the cross. If only he’d given in to Satan then all the kingdoms of the world would have been his to control and reform.

But Jesus took the way doomed to fail—the way of ironic success. As St. Paul would write to the Colossians: “Christ disarmed the powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them by the cross.” In a theme recurrent throughout our sermons this summer and throughout the gospels, the victory of God is assured only through defeat; winning only through losing. It boggles our mind that it would work this way, but perhaps the reason is so that we won’t claim credit for the win (God gets the glory) and so that we won’t lose heart. As Christians we may feel like failures and look like losers, but somehow that’s what winners look like in the Kingdom of God.

As part of one summer vacation I engaged in a week of intensely competitive Cribbage—with my then 9-year-old niece. She loved to play card games and was always eager to deal even though she never could beat me—I’m that good. Finally, on the last night of her visit, with her yet to prevail a single time, I decided to stop feeding my own pathetic ego and let the little kid win. I mean c’mon, she’s my niece. She’s 9. I like her. So I fed her hand loads of good cards and points until finally she pegged across the finish line first, raised her arms, widened her eyes and exclaimed, “I won! I’ve never won cribbage before! I beat Uncle Daniel!” And the then she grinned at me, lowered her hand [in the L-shape] to her forehead and happily taunted me in earshot of all: “Loser! Uncle Daniel is a loser!”

Losing never felt so good.

After that girl I tutored never came back, I switched over to another student, a boy from a nearby housing project. I likewise befriended him and tried to not only help him with his homework but also give him some hope as we talked about faith and about Jesus. He’d ask me to pray for his brain. It was a running joke of ours. I’d lay hands on his head and ask God to heal his ignorance. It didn’t help a whole lot though. He still struggled in school. But he did show up every Tuesday for that prayer. He’d often wonder aloud why it was that I showed up every week to spend an hour with him. I told him that I liked him and that Jesus loved him and that somebody needed to help him. He said, “Man, you only do this because you’re a Christian.” I said, “That’s true.” And he liked that. It’s how he knew I’d keep coming.

The bread that we break and the blood we partake is to us a reminder that the broken and bloody way of the cross is the way we must follow if we are to follow Jesus. Most days it feels like failure and makes us look like losers, but inasmuch as God in Christ “disarmed the powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them by the cross,” the failure and loss of the cross remains the victory of God. We eat and drink to this certain hope that is ours in Christ. It is a hope that insists that no matter how dark and twisted things get, the resurrection of Jesus will redeem heaven and earth, freeing them from all that has thus far resisted God’s grace. “Therefore we do not lose heart,” Paul wrote, “though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles prepare us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”