Friday, November 23, 2012

Now On Kindle: The Year of Luke

The Year of Luke is the first in a series of commentaries on biblical scripture found in the three-year cycle of Christian liturgical readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Instead of interpreting these readings as a precursor of messianic salvation from Hell, culminating in the exclusive Body of Christ and the imperial violence of the Church Triumphant, postmodern exiles from the premodern orthodoxy of the Christian church can begin to realize the radicality in Jesus’ original message, and join the struggle to find the courage to live it out in Covenant, non-violence, justice-compassion, and the deep peace that passes all understanding.

The project is grounded in the postmodern biblical scholarship of Karen Armstrong, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar, as well as the transforming work of Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, whose theology of Creation Spirituality has reclaimed Catholic mysticism for post-modern cosmology. Appendix One contains reimagined rituals of Holy Communion that reflect an invitation to commit to the ongoing salvation work of non-violent, distributive, justice-compassion. Appendix Two is a Bible study for Holy Week that explores in depth the meaning of kenosis.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Money in Trust and a Failed First Harvest – Lammas 2012

Romans 13:11-14, 14:17; Mark 13; Luke 18-19

In the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth, now is the time of the first harvest.  In the old European Celtic Wheel of the Year, the bread for the festival Communion Mass (Lammas, August 1) was made from the first grains – barley, wheat, rye.  This year, 2012, the great “bread basket of the world” – midwestern United States – has been in drought for months.  The winter wheat crop was good. But the summer corn and soybean crops are gone.

Economic uncertainty is a symptom; the disease is planet-wide: ecological breakdown, climate change, “global warming.”  Denying the facts of climate change has been a priority for right-wing business and Christian fundamentalist leaders.  Unlimited sums of money have been poured into research that surely would destroy the credibility of left-wing “socialists” determined to destroy the “freedom” of the people to make all the money they want to make; until Richard Muller, professor of physics of UC Berkeley took his “no strings attached half-million bucks” from the Koch Brothers and discovered the scientists were right – not only about climate change, but the fact that humans are the cause.  What really fries the right is that Prof. Muller was a climate change skeptic.

One of the prophets of our time is the Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. Fox is the founder of a theology called Creation Spirituality, which has at its core the revolutionary conviction that the Universe and everything in it is an original blessing, not an original sin.  At a recent conference sponsored by Evolve Chesapeake (a Creation Spirituality community), Fox discussed the necessity for “awakening imagination for transformation” – a mouthful of words that boils down to putting human creativity to work to solve the problem.  After all, as Professor Muller says, human creativity got us into this ecological mess and human creativity can get us out of it.

Fox suggests that super-capitalism – the hegemony of the very wealthy – runs on the suppression of our own creativity – i.e., wilful ignorance.  Wilful ignorance prompted Marie Antoinette to wonder why – if they don’t have bread– the people can’t eat cake instead?  Now as then, the economic precariousness of the working classes has not yet percolated up through the layers of protective investments to affect the well-being of the wealthy.  In a New York Times Op ed, “Corn for Food, Not Fuel,” Colin A. Carter and Henry I. Miller (July 30, 2012) write:
        By suspending renewable-fuel standards that were unwise from the start, the Environmental Protection Agency could divert vast amounts of corn from inefficient ethanol production back into the food chain, where market forces and common sense dictate it should go. The drought has now parched about 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states. As a result, global food prices are rising steeply. Corn futures prices on the Chicago exchange have risen about 60 percent since mid-June, hitting record levels, and other grains such as wheat and soybeans are also sharply higher. Livestock and dairy product prices will inevitably follow. . . . The price of corn is a critical variable in the world food equation, and food markets are on edge because American corn supplies are plummeting. The combination of the drought and American ethanol policy will lead in many parts of the world to widespread inflation, more hunger, less food security, slower economic growth and political instability, especially in poor countries.

“Who cares?” says the ghost of the clueless Marie Antoinette.  But inevitably, the shortage of cake (never mind the absence of bread) will become apparent, even to those who thought that the higher the price the greater the profit for them. 

The writer of the Gospel of Luke reports a parable told by Jesus that has stumped the faithful for centuries.  But the meaning is perhaps not so mysterious, despite the ending – which may or may not be an addition supplied by Luke.  At the end of the parable of the money in trust, in which a landowner returns to find that one of his slaves had been too afraid of the master’s ruthlessness to risk investing the money entrusted to him, the boss says “I’m telling you, to everyone who has, more will be given and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away.”  He then rewards his corporate allies ten-fold, and orders the execution of the members of the board who opposed his plan to merge with another company ( Luke 19:12-27).  Putting the parable in the current context, suppose your CEO, a known crook whom everyone hates, gives you a million dollars to invest in corn futures and ethanol production.  The only way to maintain your livelihood may be to bury the money in the atrium garden. You won’t get a raise – your colleagues who play the game will get their reward – but you will at least save your life. Or, as in the parable of the Shrewd Manager, if your boss is threatening to fire you because the profit margin isn’t satisfying the shareholders, make side-bets that pay off the creditors and save the business (Luke 16:1-8).

Jesus’ parables tell us how use our creativity to subvert the putative rulers of Earth.  Jesus got into trouble for suggesting that the way to assure that all of the people have food to eat is to share whatever they have.  And don’t assume that your traditional enemy has no soul.  The very powers that are supposed to have your best interest at heart will pass you by on the other side of the road while you die in the ditch (“The Good Samaritan” Luke 10:30-35).  To love your enemies is to have no enemies.

The much-misunderstood and dismissed Apostle Paul wrote in the first century:
        I don’t have to tell you that we are living in the most decisive moment in human history.  The hour has already passed for you to be roused from your sleep, because the time of ultimate fulfillment is nearer now than when we first put our unconditional confidence and trust in God.  The night is almost gone, the day is almost here.  Let us rid ourselves of the preoccupations of the darkness and clothe ourselves with the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves in ways befitting those who live in the full light of day, not in gluttony and drunkenness, now in promiscuous sexual behavior nor in uninhibited self-indulgence, not in contentiousness and envy.  But adopt the manner of life of our lord, Jesus, God’s Anointed, and make no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification. . . . For the empire of God is not about food and drink, but it is about the integrity and peace and joy that comes through God’s presence and power among us. Romans 13:11-14, 14:17.  The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, 2010).

The first step is to acknowledge the depth of the sin, but what does this mean in a secular world?

Paul is not talking about petty trespass, like making love before marriage, or eating too much at a party.  Paul is not suggesting that the answer is easy piety – going to church, giving money to charity, volunteering at the soup kitchen.  When Paul talks about making no concession to the lifestyle of this age, he’s not implying the internet is evil, or technology is de-humanizing, or that abortion, divorce, and contraception will send you to hell.  That’s the easy stuff.  What’s not so easy is the integrity that comes through the presence and power of God. 

The presence and power of God is radical fairness – distributive justice-compassion.  The only way to achieve that is through the radical abandonment of self-interest.  In Paul’s words, “no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  This is the “inner work” that Matthew Fox calls the via negativa.  To do this inner work means acknowledging and owning the conditions that lead to fear for survival, greed, war, and the destruction of the Planet.  That “inner work” results in a transformation of attitude that then leads to creative ways to act with distributive justice-compassion – to a share world instead of a greed world.

In a share world, when corn is lost to drought, what is saved is not dedicated to conversion into fuel, but used for food.  In a share world, mountaintops are not destroyed to save the expense of deep-mining for coal. In a share world, land and water are not destroyed for short-term economic gain.

Paul claims that Jesus “made no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  Indeed, Jesus got into major trouble for suggesting that while Cesar may have thought he was master of the universe, he in fact owned nothing but the coin with his name on it.  “God” owns the earth and everything in it. 

Apocalypticism is on the rise, whether among religious fundamentalists or atheists.  For the religious – especially Christian fundamentalists – the end times have never seemed more imminent.  Even though the “little apocalypse” in the Gospel of Mark is clearly about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 66-70, the language has lent itself to every political, social, economic, and ecological disaster of the past two millennia of the common era.  “Wars and rumors of wars”; earthquakes, famines, persecutions, wild weather; and of course “phony messiahs and phony prophets will show up and they’ll provide signs and omens in an attempt to deceive, if possible, the chosen people.” Mark 13:22, The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010). 

One effective way to deceive the people is to suggest that misfortune is its own fault.  So poverty is the fault of the poor; drug and alcohol addiction are caused by moral weakness; unemployment is the result of laziness.  The result is denial on a global scale, across all social and economic strata of the seriousness and depth of what we are facing as a species. 

Scientists are telling us that we have the ability to choose whether to listen to the primitive parts of our brains and respond to fear, or to use the intuitive, creative parts of our brains to assure that we continue to evolve. Indeed we are at a point where we can watch over our own evolution – choice not chance.

Matthew Fox reminds us that there is really only one question: How to love the world.  Pessimism, cynicism, and despair teach us how not to love the world.  These are sins that lead us – in Paul’s updated words – to make concessions to “the lifestyle of the age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  The world is heavily invested in denial.  Denial is the choice to be deliberately ignorant of conditions that will overtake us in the end if we do not wake up.

Please pass the bread.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Relegated to the Fringes: Proper 11, Year B [Revisited]

2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 89:20-37; Psalm 23; 
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

With this week’s readings, the nature of the detour from the Way first chronicled by the writer of Mark’s Gospel comes into focus.  The orthodox conclusion that Jesus is the ultimate ancestor of David who saves and shepherds the lost flock of Israel is nearly impossible to counter or avoid.  From Nathan’s Oracle through Jeremiah’s prophecy of the coming of the legitimate branch of David, to pseudo-Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus himself” is the cornerstone of the holy temple, bolstered by Psalms 23 and 89, the supercessionary hegemony of Christianity is clearly and graphically affirmed.  Indeed, dealing with the Elves’ selections from the Christian Bible is like riding a rubber raft down the Upper Youghioghenny. The nearly 2,000-year, Anti-Semitic, blood-soaked, crusading history of the Christian church finds its rationale in such combinations of lectionary readings.  Unfortunately, this is not the only example, as we have discovered over the past three years of study.

Let’s start the reclaiming process from the top: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a.  Since Pentecost, the readings from 1st and 2nd Samuel have chronicled the foundational saga of the great king David.  Like the later legend of King Arthur of Britain, David united the northern and southern tribes under one banner.  David’s power and importance and significance to the spiritual and political history of the Jewish people is unquestioned.  The story should be allowed its own integrity, so that its wisdom can be heard through the millennia. 

That wisdom lies in the ongoing conflict between Covenant and Empire.  The people wanted a King, so God reluctantly gave them a King.  The story lays out the strengths and weaknesses of royalty, and the political pitfalls that constantly undermine the normal course of human civilization as people learn to live together in justice and peace.  Nathan’s Oracle assures us that regardless of what David’s shortcomings may turn out to be, his line and his legacy are settled.  Because we already know what is coming, we are not surprised when God tells Nathan to decline David’s offer to build God a temple.  That task is deferred to a later son of David.  We know why, because we have been told the story since Sunday School. 

But suppose we did not know the whole legend.  Then we would have to look for its meaning not just in Nathan’s Oracle, but in David’s response – which is not included in the readings.  Does David object to God’s decision to remain in a tent while David and his family are housed in royal Cedar?  Does he insist that he owes it to God because of God’s favor to him?  Does God demand a temple in exchange for a kingdom?  The answer on both sides is “no.”  A Covenant with God is not a commercial or even political arrangement.  The Covenant with God – or with the Universe, or with the natural order as we know it – is far tougher than any commercial or political contract.  Whether it is with a personal God, as understood by pre-modern and much of contemporary humanity, or with a kenotic god of post-modern, non-theistic understanding, the Covenant means that so long as we govern ourselves with distributive justice-compassion, so long as we live in radical abandonment of self-interest, we dwell in a realm where even the lion and lamb co-exist.  When we break the Covenant – when we act with injustice, revenge, or selfishness; when we disturb the balance of the natural order – there are consequences.  Sometimes those consequences are life-threatening, such as global warming, pandemics, or, classically, “war, famine, disease, and death.”  David’s Prayer reflects this understanding (2 Samuel 7:18-29): “For you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”

The writings of the prophet Jeremiah have been applied so often to the human condition that the word “jeremiad” was coined to characterize similar laments against social and political injustice.  Jeremiah – as we well know – spent his career warning 6th Century B.C.E. Israelites of the dire consequences of ignoring God’s Covenant, and of collaborating with foreign values.  But in the verses chosen for Proper 11 of Year B, Jeremiah’s original intent has been corrupted by its juxtaposition with the other selections.  Jeremiah himself would be justified in applying his charges against the false prophets of Jerusalem directly to present-day creators of the Revised Common Lectionary: “they . . . led my people Israel astray . . . they . . . walk in lies; they strengthen the hand of evildoers” (23:13-14). 

This assertion may be heretical to orthodox tradition, but to use Jeremiah’s impassioned prophetic warning to prove the foreordination of Jesus as the Messiah is worse than heresy.  When Jeremiah accuses the leadership of 6th Century B.C.E. Jerusalem of collaboration with the invading Babylonians (“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep”), and then says that God will “gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them” he is not talking about how “in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).  Further, without judicious use of paddles and ballast, the rushing scriptural torrent let loose by the Elves could carry our lectionary raft into even more dangerous theological waters:  Jeremiah is most certainly not referring to the theories of Zionist fundamentalism.

When we read beyond verse 6 in Jeremiah’s chapter 23, we see that there is hope for those in exile, but only if the false prophets of that same hope are held accountable for their words and actions.  Whether we apply Jeremiah’s cherry-picked words to Christianity’s judgment against the Jews, or to our present-day political and social situation, we do so to our peril.  Indeed, if we read to the end of chapter 23, God has some pointed things to say about that very thing: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.  But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. . . . Am I a God nearby . . . and not a God far off? . . . Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.”  And what is that word?  It is faithfulness to the Covenant.  It is the restoration of God’s imperial rule, which is distributive justice-compassion.  It is following the Way.

The Elves have assigned the letter to the Ephesians for the next five weeks.  If studied in its entirety, keeping it divorced from any association with the other readings, then it may be found to have its own particular relevance.  Certainly it is relevant to an understanding of the earliest gentile Christian communities who had little if any connection with Jewish spiritual practice.  In the portion selected for this week, the writer is explaining how the life and death of Jesus has brought about a reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles.  “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”  That household stands on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, and Jesus the Christ is the cornerstone of that household.  According to the writer’s metaphor, that household has become a  holy temple, and a dwelling place for God. 

The letter was written by a disciple of Paul, in Paul’s name, some 20 to 40 years after Paul’s death.  Throughout the letter, Paul’s original theology has been subtly changed.  The second coming of the Christ that Paul expected momentarily has still not occurred.  Accommodation to that fact had to have been made by the early Christian communities.  The letter seems to be a gentle pastoral letter with no transformational fireworks such as are found in the letters Paul actually wrote.  An enterprising Adult Sunday School leader might want to compare Ephesians with Romans, or Corinthians, and explore Paul’s theology in some depth.  But to imply that the Temple built by the son of David and destroyed by the Romans has been replaced with “the one body” of Christians as “a holy temple to the Lord” (as the Elves do) misrepresents the writer’s point. 

The point of the portion of Ephesians chosen for this Sunday is non-violent reconciliation and peace.  The death of Jesus the Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body . . . So [Jesus] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  Standing on its own, the letter contains no supercessionary violence; but the letter is not allowed to stand and speak for itself.  It is continually interpreted in the misdirected light of spooky Old Testament “prophecy” and miraculous New Testament “gospel.”

The gutted remains of Mark’s powerful parable of the preference of humanity for magic and miracle over the hard work of distributive justice have the last word: “. . . they would lay out the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to let them touch the fringe of his cloak.  And all those who managed to touch it were cured!”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Response to Douthat: Reclaim Scripture, Save Christianity?

Ross Douthat points out that the more “liberal” Christianity becomes, the more members leave.  Perhaps that is because very few people are reclaiming scripture so that it is relevant to a secular world. Most people dismiss the Bible as meaningless myth.  But what will replace it?  Star Wars?  Harry Potter?

Beyond simple “Biblical literacy” – which means you know what the story says – is midrash, which reclaims scripture for the post-modern age.

Coming soon to your Kindle is The Year of Luke:Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity.  For a preview, click here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Summer Reading

    Sea Raven has two e-books available from for your summer beach commute. 

    The first is a short, fast-paced, political intrigue:  “Washington Legal: What Secretaries Know and When They Know It.”  Behind the scenes in a Washington, D.C. law firm at the turn of the 21st Century, an unconventional Human Resources Director protects her secretarial staff from dysfunctional bosses, rolls with the punches of outsourcing and evolving digital technology, and uncovers a pre-9/11 international deal that leads to murder.  Yours for just 99 cents on your Kindle

    The second is“The J’Argon,” a full-length, future-fiction fantasy published in 2000 by, now also available as an e-Book from Amazon.  The J’Argon is the leader of a spiritual alliance that has voice but not vote in 22nd century global politics.  She is the Fourth J’Argon and the first woman to hold the title since the Covenant of the Word was formed in 2047.  Her long-time lover, partner, and soul friend, the Arch Deacon of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is a leader in the liberation underground.  The Year is 2157.  The United States has become a repressive theocracy, where a great evil holds sway.  The Arch Deacon must open his prophetic Christian mysticism to the J’Argon’s ancient earth-based magic and awaken his own adept power so that together they can defeat the Dragon.

    After 25 years as a legal secretary in Washington, D.C., Sea Raven moved to the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia in 2002.  She is now a volunteer chaplain with Hospice of the Panhandle in Martinsburg.  Her work as a free-lance writer, musician, and worship leader is grounded in post-modern Christian scholarship, and focused on justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.  Sea Raven holds a Doctor of Ministry in Creation Spirituality.  Her doctoral project, The Wheel of the Year:  A Worship Book for Creation Spirituality, provides worship experiences that spring from pre-Christian Celtic spirituality, post-modern cosmology, and the theology and four-path principles of Creation Spirituality as developed by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox.  The project is published on her website along with a weekly blog (the original Liberal Christian Commentary).

    Sea Raven is an Associate of Westar (the Jesus Seminar); a board certified Associate Clinical Chaplain (College for Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy); and a designated Lay Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

David Brooks Respects the Future and Misses the Point

In response to the Snelling family tragedy, David Brooks writes,
        Either Snelling . . . lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake. . . Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given. . . . But who is to say how Snelling would have felt four months from now? The fact is, we are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future. . . our capacities for imagining the future are . . . horrible in moments of stress and suffering.  Given these weaknesses, it seems wrong to make a decision that will foreclose future thinking.  It’s better to respect the future, to remain humbly open to your own unfolding. . . .If you look at life through the calculus of autonomy, then maybe Snelling made the right call. . . . But if you look at a life as one element within a mysterious flow, . . . Charles and Adrienne Snelling still had a few ripples to create.
In present-day U.S. realities, there is no return from Alzheimer's; after age 80 the outlook for an autonomous, productive, and meaningful life in the absence of some form of dementia is bleak at best, even for those with the means to pay for long-term, humane, enlightened, assistance.  To suggest that anyone in the circumstances faced by the Snellings had “a few ripples to create” in the “mysterious flow” of life, is naive at best, cruel at worst.

Brooks declines to present the religious arguments against murder and suicide, “many of which are based on the supposition that a life is a gift from God.”  But larger theological minds than Mr. Brooks’ have gone far beyond such simplistic pietisms and wrestled with the “courage to be” – to live fully and completely in the face of the knowledge that one day we will cease to exist.  Mr. Snelling stands accused by Brooks of either a profound and callous self-centeredness, or romantic delusion.  But neither may have been the case.  Instead, in the face of the failure of both society and the religions that claim to nurture and guide it, Mr. Snelling looked into the possibility of non-existence and chose it. 

That choice shows a trust in the nature of life and the universe that is close to the trust that Jesus taught and embodied.  Progressive, liberal religious people – Christians particularly – should look to Jesus’ relationship to God beginning with Matthew 6:25-34.  Jesus says, “don’t fret about your life . . . there’s more to living than food and clothing . . . Take a look at the birds of the sky . . . the wild lilies . . . the grass in the field, which is here today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow.”  Go on from there to John 14:1-4, followed by Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 15:51-52.  Read these passages in the context of today’s cosmology – what we now know about the nature of the Universe, including the laws of physics, not the 1st century cosmology of a triple-decker universe with God above, earth in the middle, and hell below that conventional religion insists upon to its continued irrelevance. 

Jesus taught a seamless relationship among the spirit of life, the natural world, and humanity, and he trusted that relationship to the point of his own unjust death at the hands of Roman occupiers.  Paul writes, in the new translation by the Westar institute scholars:

        I am going to tell you a wondrous secret: We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet-signal.  The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we [too] will be transformed.  Because this perishable man must be clothed with the imperishable, and this mortal man must be clothed with immortality.  And when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable and the mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been engulfed by victory.  Where, O Death has your victory gone?  What’s happened, O Death, to your fatal sting?
21st century cosmology is clear:  neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed, but only transformed.  We should have the same confidence in God that Jesus did: the same confidence in justice-compassion, in the spirit of life, and the nature of the universe itself.

In this Holy Week that celebrates the liberation of Passover and the incarnate promise of Easter, instead of concluding that Mr. Snelling “either lost control of his faculties, or made a lamentable mistake,” progressive spiritual leaders should grant him the courage to look into nothingness and encounter life itself.