Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blessed Are the Prophets

“Jesus Enters the City” from artist Douglas Blanchard’s series, The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision, and the book with author and blogger Kittredge Cherry. Copyright © by Douglas Blanchard. Used by permission.

Text Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

So was Jesus and his followers streaming through the streets of Jerusalem a parade or a march? Were the palm-waving crowds welcoming a demonstration against Rome or simply enjoying a party? Are we talkin’ political movement or Mardi Gras? (This will be familiar to those of you who hear the same conversations about annual Pride observances!)

The answer to me in both cases is “yes.” Both a Jesus parade and Jesus march were an affront to Rome, the political authorities who ruled Palestine. Both a Jesus demonstration and a Jesus party would have been a challenge to the cultural “powers that be.” Both a political movement and a Mardi Gras celebrated at Passover time would have disconcerted the religious authorities of Jesus’ time.

I can hear the politically powerful saying, “What’s this guy up to?” I can hear the culturally influential wondering, “What’s this low-life trying to do?” I can hear the religious elite crying, “This is no way to celebrate Passover! We’ve never done it this way before!”

Yet at the same time we hear, “Hosanna!”—which literally means “save us,” first said as a prayer and then as an acclamation. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God!”

Hope and fear, love and disdain, joy and grief flowed on the streets of Jerusalem that day when Jesus, with palm-waving flourish, humbly rode in on a donkey over the garments and palms laid out before him.

Oh, if his friends in Nazareth could see him now!

What PR firm came up with this plan? What marketing company staged this event? Which campaign consultants organized this photo op?

Jesus gives us a clue in the Gospel of Luke, when asked to calm the crowd down: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out.” 

In other words, this is what happens when God’s Spirit moves, whether upon the waters of earth or the blood of the human heart. This is what happens when people know a truth that will set them and others free. This is what happens when our spirit in union with God’s Spirit rises up and says: “Never again!” or “I am a man.” or “I am woman.” or “We’re here, we’re queer, get over it.”

Think what all the people felt following Jesus into the city! Surely their day had come! What pride to see the turnout! What joy to believe that they were going to send the powers that be running! What elation to know of a certainty that this was the one who would be the solution, political and personal.

What was Jesus like in this moment, we might wonder.

At the rally following one of the first LGBT Pride marches in Los Angeles, I heard Harvey Milk speak. I was surprised how loud and raspy his voice was, and how abrasive he was in his demands of the culture.

Was Jesus like that? Probably.

I met Cesar Chavez during one of his fasts for migrant farm workers, and I was surprised how gentle and loving and spiritual he was when he spoke of his cause and his people.

Was Jesus like that? Probably.

I encountered feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether in a committee meeting and I was surprised by how unassuming yet straightforward she was, even as she spoke with clarity about injustices against Palestinians.

Was Jesus like that? Probably.

We encounter every prophet for change with a mix of fear and gratitude: fear of what they might require of us, gratitude for speaking their truth.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem may serve as metaphor for how we too have welcomed prophets or been welcomed as prophets. On that first Palm Sunday, as the crowds cheered Jesus into the holy city, their welcome did not mean they would not struggle with this Christ. Jerusalem was to question Jesus’ authority, doubt his orthodoxy, ask trick questions, question his belief in resurrection, demand to know when the fulfillment of time would come, betray him, deny him, place him on trial, judge him, mock him, torture and crucify him. Toward the end of the week it would be hard to remember that this same city also welcomed him with a 21-palm salute.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Haven’t most who identify as Christian and even those who no longer identify as Christian welcomed Jesus with joy only to struggle with him, question his authority, doubt his truth as well as his assurances of God’s eternal love, demand answers, betray him, deny him, judge him, mock him, even crucify him?

And haven’t most of us treated prophets or been treated as prophets similarly?

May the day come when we welcome every prophet with “Hosanna! Blessed are the ones who come in the name of God!”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Bad Theology"

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Liberals should not allow ourselves to be bullied by self-styled conservatives who accuse us of “bad theology.”

“Our sociology is predictably derived from, legitimated by, and reflective of our theology. And if we gather around a static god of order who only guards the interests of the ‘haves,’ oppression cannot be far behind,” Old Testament seminary professor Walter Brueggemann wrote in The Prophetic Imagination.

The frequent mistake of liberals in our politics of justice and compassion, Brueggemann suggests, is that we fail to claim our theological basis in God’s freedom to identify with the “have nots” over against the status quo. So, “Social radicalism has been like a cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions.”

On the other hand he says, “A case can be made that unprophetic conservatives [do] not take God seriously enough to see that our discernment of God has remarkable sociological implications.”

From Moses through the prophets to Jesus, the biblical witness is of a God who cares about the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the poor, and the religious outcast. Unless we are caring for “the least of these,” we are not taking the theology of the Bible seriously. And yet those who oppose caring for “the least of these,” from social security to health care to immigration reform, are the most likely to claim our theology is “bad.” (BTW, Jesus said nothing about contraception or homosexuality, the frequent litmus tests of “good” theology, and more than once he affirmed the rights of women.) In preserving the biblical tradition, liberals are the true conservatives.

Religious freedom is not freedom from responsibility to provide for the underserved or underprivileged. It is rather freedom from the gods and the demagogues that prevent us from doing so.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dust and Glory

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

“We have this treasure in clay jars,” the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, “So that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 

As I age I am especially aware of my cracked and wrinkled clay! I see it in the mirror, as my skin’s terrain shifts with time. I feel it in my body, my joints stiffening like the Tinman’s rusting hinges. 

Lent is a time to reflect on our mortality, but I think of it also as a time to contemplate our divinity—as process theology would say, our participation in the divine life. “For in God we live and move and have our being,” Paul quoted a Greek philosopher to proclaim a new theology in Acts 17:38. 

Henri Nouwen’s spiritual director once gave him this koan, this mantra: “I am the glory of God.” Where else is the glory of God manifest but in our bodies and in nature and in the cosmos? As Teresa of Avila observed, “On earth, God’s body is our own.” Ephesians tells us, “We are God’s work of art” (NJB, 2:10). 

Thomas Merton wrote “it is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, [God] gloried in becoming a member of the human race.” 

Listening to the news on National Public Radio and reading the newspaper each morning, I am constantly reminded of human absurdities and our terrible mistakes. That’s why I need a time of reading and reflection to remind me who we are. 

Some progressive Christians have reservations regarding the divinity of Jesus, "that God gloried in becoming a member of the human race." Henri Nouwen wrote in his book Creative Ministry, “We will never fully understand the meaning of the sacramental signs of bread and wine when they do not make us realize that the whole of nature is a sacrament pointing to a reality far beyond itself. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist becomes a ‘special problem’ only when we have lost our sense of God’s presence in all that is, grows, lives, and dies.” I would extend his understanding to say, “The divinity of Christ becomes a ‘special problem’ only when we have lost our sense of God’s divinity in all that is, grows, lives, and dies.” 

Affirming “I am the glory of God” is not “all about me” or “all about you,” but rather, all about us and all about God.  


You may enjoy reading “Jesus’ Temptations” on the writings page of my website, my imaginative excerpt from the “lost” Gospel of Jesus.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In Praise of Praise

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.
In memory of a friend and colleague in ministry, the Rev. Julie Two Suess.

Attending the Sunday evening praise service of MCC San Francisco, my partner turned to me and said, “For this service, you’re gonna need a lot more rhythm!” I had just moved there to serve as interim pastor, and the clapping and swaying and emotional singing had not been a regular feature of my worship experience.

A visit to the service a year earlier had alienated me. “What if I’m in pain when I come to the service?” I judgmentally thought, “I wouldn’t fit in with all these happy people.” Sharing that thought with the former pastor, the Rev. Jim Mitulski (one of the world’s finest preachers), he corrected, “We started that service to give voice to all of our feelings facing the AIDS crisis in the Castro.” He explained it was the old gospel songs and Taize style chants that expressed the range of their emotions, from lament and longing to hope and faith. One might compare the similar range of the Psalms.

I’ve just finished reading a book by a progressive Christian who expresses many insights I cherish, but who suggests we praise to “flatter” God to get what we want. That may be true for some, but not for me, and not for most, I would say.

Rather, we praise to be uplifted into God’s realm, to feel and to be embraced by something larger than ourselves—spiritual community, planet earth, the cosmos and all that is within it. The expanding universe calls for our own expansion. Spiritual ecstasy, like sexual ecstasy, gets us out of our selves, literally “out of stasis,” out of the status quo.

Just like prayer, praise is the place, not of God’s transformation, but of our own! To paraphrase the spiritual, “It’s not you but me, O Lord, standing in the need of praise.” In her book, Suffering, the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle affirms that collective “lament, petition, expressions of hope” empower those who suffer to address wrongs, comparing workers’ protests to liturgies, particularly the Psalms.

I come from traditions—both Baptist and Presbyterian—suspicious of the charismatic expressions of worship. Even the simple act of lifting our arms and faces upward—ironically, the praying posture of Jews and Christians of biblical times—seemed indecorous in our  somber and earnest worship.

There is “bad” praise music, of course—uninspired, unpoetic, musically dull, and theologically untenable for progressive Christians. But even the theologically questionable ones, if inspired and poetic and musically interesting enough, may be fun to sing. Just don’t take them literally (just like scripture!).

I introduced a new song with just the right theology at the annual Kirkridge men’s retreat I co-lead, but when we faltered at its difficulty, someone started singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and it became the reprise of the weekend.

My preference is for Gregorian chants, songs and chants from Taize, Iona, and John Michael Talbot, as well as spirituals, sambas, salsas, and freedom songs. But I also still hum and sing the old gospel songs and staid hymns as well. Just ask our dog, Hobbes.


Serendipitously, for those of us in the Atlanta area, I just learned that John Bell from the Iona community will be leading an evening of song at 7:30 p.m. March 20 in Cannon Chapel on the Emory campus as part of the Candler School of Theology’s conference, “The Singing Church: Current Practices and Emerging Trends in Congregational Singing.” Tickets are $20 for the evening.

And, in regard to last week’s post, I have since found and recommend the film version of the book, “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” on Netflix.


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My hope is that you will also browse the archives (right column) to use previous reflections in your daily or occasional devotions.