Monday, April 27, 2015

Come and See! Go and Tell!


On this Holy Myrrh-Bearers' Sunday I've been in Linthicum, MD, visiting Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church.  Archpriest Fr. Gregory Matthewes-Green asked me to preach.  This is what I said:

The Gospel Reading is from the Evangelist Mark 15:43-16:8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  [He is risen indeed!]  Kristo amefufuka! [Kweli amefufuka!]



Death is always the end of the story, isn’t it?  Look at how our culture struggles so with death, the denial, the institutionalized partition created by our hospitals, our nursing homes, our funeral homes, all of which keep us separated from the reality of what death does, of what death is.  Our media is obsessed with death.  We can watch a thousand deaths a day on TV, online, and all those games as the entertainment industry by overkill seeks to make death somehow manageable by anesthetizing our minds and hearts to death’s reality.  But it doesn’t work.  The reality of death.  The fear of death.  The terror of death.  Our world has no answer.  We plank over the chasm with platitudes, or distractions, or addictions.  As St. Paul rightly says, death is the last great enemy.


A group of women made their way in the darkness of dawn to the cold dark tomb where Jesus’ body lay.  These women had known Jesus, they had heard him teach, they had seen the miracles, lepers restored, blind given sight, paralytics walking, a dead son restored to his widowed mother, and even just last week, (was it only just last week?) Jesus had called the dead Lazarus from his tomb after being dead four days.  But after an absolutely tumultuous week, Jesus had been seized in the middle of the night, taken off to a secret trial, handed over to the Romans, who treated him like any other outlaw.  They crucified him, as if he were a thief, as if he were a murderer.  And these women, horrified, watched him suffer and then die.  They watched and wept as that rich man from Arimathea took down his body from the cross.  They gathered around and helped as his body was washed and quickly wrapped and carried to a nearby tomb, because the sun was setting and it was almost Sabbath.  They saw where they laid his lifeless body.  They watched as the men rolled a big stone across the entrance.  They stumbled home in the darkness, drained, empty, numb.  They had thought that Jesus might be the one who would save Israel.  But the story had come to a terrible end.  That is what death does.


Every culture has its ways of coping with death.  Somehow, the rituals help soften the blow.  We have our viewings and visitations, our funerals, our graveside prayers or scattering of ashes.  For these women, they were doing what they had done so many times before when a loved one had died or a friend was bereaved.  They stepped in for the family and took care of the body.  They prepared the body for burial.  For Jews, there was no embalming; the custom was to bury the dead on the day they died. This involved washing the body, anointing the body with spices to offset the stench of decay, and of wrapping the body in a shroud.  The body would be taken on a bier to a tomb and left on a slab.  The tomb was then closed.  The body would decompose and after some months, members of the family would return, open the tomb, and collect the bones and place them in a small box, an ossuary, which they would then place in a niche in the tomb.  This would offer some closure.  And the tomb would be ready to be used again. 


These women had a job to finish.  And so after the Sabbath, before dawn, while it was still cool, they gathered by the city gate.  They knew where the tomb was.  They came with their spices.  They came because the story was over, and this is the only way they knew to cope.    They had followed Jesus from when he was in Galilee.  They came with him to Jerusalem.  They followed him as he carried the cross.  They had gone with him as far as they could go.  But now death had ended his story.  They came to say goodbye to Jesus. Today we would call it grief work.


We all know what happened next.  It is not a long walk from the gates of Jerusalem to Joseph’s tomb where Jesus’ body lay.  The practical soul among them was already fretting about how to move the stone from the front of the tomb.  And as they followed the path around the bend and the tomb came into sight, they caught their breath and stood, stunned.  No one ever expects an angel.  And angels are always having to tell people things like, ‘Don’t be afraid!’  ‘Don’t be alarmed!’ this angel says.  Easy enough for an angel to say, but for a small group of women who have just stumbled upon the end of the old age and the beginning of the new, terror is understandable.


An angel is one thing, but it’s what he says that absolutely undoes them.  ‘You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.’ (Mark 16:6)  Excuse me, but I’m sorry, this just doesn’t happen.  Death is always the end of the story.  There are no categories for this, not for these women, not for us.  OK, even so, we’ve sort of gotten used to this idea that Jesus has risen from the dead.  That’s why Pascha is such a big deal, and rightly so.  But it’s what the angel says next to these women that I want to leave you with.  He says, ‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you.’ (Mark 16:7) 


Just a couple of obvious things.  First, notice that this is a commission.  The angel says ‘Come and see,’ and then he says, ‘Go and tell,’ specifically go and tell the disciples what you have heard from me – that Jesus is risen from the dead – go and tell what you have seen with your own eyes – namely that the tomb is empty.  No greater charge has ever been given.


Secondly, notice to whom this commission is given.  The angel did not appear to Peter, or to any of the other disciples.  The angel did not make this announcement to Pilate, or the chief priests, nor did he call a special meeting of the Sanhedrin.  He didn’t appear in Herod’s court or in Rome before the emperor.  No, this is a couple of women.  They have no legal standing as witnesses.  They are not movers and shakers.  They wield no power or influence in the halls of the mighty.  With all due respect to the women here, God chooses political, cultural, societal nobodies to be the ones entrusted with the most important message ever given to anyone.  I don’t think they had ever been to college, much less seminary.  Jesus had said on a number of occasions that wherever he was in charge, the first would be last and the last would be first.  Well, this is what that looks like.



            Lastly, I just want to point out that nothing has changed.  The tomb is still empty. And in spite of the studied blindness of our cultures, Death is not the end of the story.  Instead with the resurrection of Jesus, an entirely new story has begun.  And it’s a story that has involved many people over many years.  But now if you look down on the page, we’ve come to that part in Jesus’ story that’s about you, and about me.  That’s your name I see written here, and your parish!  Our lives are being touched and transformed as the good news comes even to us.  We, too, are hearing with our own ears, seeing with our own eyes, experiencing in our own hearts what the risen Jesus can do.  But just like with the women, the myrrh-bearing women, it doesn’t stop with them – it doesn’t stop with us.  Instead the angel says to us, ‘Come and see! Go and tell!’  We, too, have the same commission.  ‘Go and tell’ all these people in our families, in our neighborhood, in our schools, in our places of work, all these people who live their lives in the valley of the shadow of death, tell them Jesus is risen, death is defeated, we need no longer be afraid, we need no longer be enslaved.  We, too, stand at the end of the old age and the beginning of the new.  Death’s reign of terror has come to an end for us.  Jesus has become the first-fruits of everyone he will raise from the dead.  And just as he says to Martha, He says to you right now: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25-26)  Did Martha believe this?  Did the women believe this?  Do you believe this? 


Mark’s gospel ends with this:  And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ (Mark 16:8)  There is more speculation than you can shake a stick at as to whether or not the original ending of Mark’s gospel got lost, and if it did, how might it have ended.  But for our sake, I’m glad it ends this way.  I think I would have done the same thing if it had been me.  And we do know from the other gospels that they in fact came face to face with the risen Jesus, that they did recover from their shock, that they did tell the disciples (who at first refused to believe them).  They went on to be among those praying in the upper room, among those filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, among those who were part of the first churches.  But it started with ‘Come and see’ and ‘Go and tell.’  These women were right there at the dawn of the Kingdom of the risen Jesus.  ‘Come and see,’ the angel said.  ‘Go and tell,’ he commissioned them.  The first apostles.  The first missionaries.


The same call is on my life – Come and see!  Go and tell!  And the same call is on your life, too.  Everything changes when we meet the risen Jesus.  And if we are still running around like everybody else in our culture, then it must mean that we haven’t met him yet.  We honor these women today because in them we see what it means to be not just an apostle, and not just a missionary.  We see in them what it means to be a Christian, right here and right now.  Come and see! says the angel at the tomb.  Go and tell!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter Again and Again


Happy Easter to all my Protestant and Catholic friends!  It was lovely seeing all the church parking lots full this past Sunday morning, and the beautiful Easter flowers bedecking crosses, and cute as can be little girls in their beautiful Easter dresses and the accompanying little boys looking dutifully uncomfortable in their new trousers, shirts and jackets.  Of course, I was on my way to celebrate Palm Sunday.

My two girls in 1993 in Easter dresses made by their mom.

Eastern and Western Churches are a week apart in their celebrations of Easter this year.  We just finished our Lent on Friday night, and with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, Orthodox Christians turn the liturgical corner into something even more profound – a series of Holy Week services that build on each other and open the doors for us to become part of the story of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.  As a member of our choir and a Reader, I’ll be there for almost every service.  And then there was our parish work day this past Saturday, and finding a time to confess with my priest and all the hard internal work that must go on with that – I mention all this because it’s not just me walking the pathway of repentance through Lent and now Holy Week, but all my fellow-parishioners are on their own similar journey.  In such company, I feel I have only begun to know Christ and to live a life worthy of His call and love.

The Reader Joseph (aka me) reading the Epistle during our Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Metropolitan Antony's recent visit to our parish. 

Holy Week and Pascha (what we Orthodox call ‘Easter’) is God’s answer to the soul-crushing black hole at the core of human existence: sin, evil and death.  The secular world is almost comical in its inability to grasp the Christian content of these days, seeking instead to distract engagement with what Christ is doing this week by absurd images of bunnies and chicks and promoting the chocolate-laden Easter basket as a substitute to the real drama happening on the cross and in the tomb and in our souls.  When I faced my first round of Holy Week services some years ago, my first thought was ‘Overkill’.  But I have since better understood both what’s going on with them and how to use them.  With my mind on hyperdrive most of the time, these services force me to slow down.  Standing for two hours through a ‘Service of the Bridegroom’ which I will do tonight and tomorrow night gives me the chance to enter into that which we are singing and chanting and praying about.  Owning the hymns and prayers transforms an event that some might consider as insufferably boring into one that is powerfully alive.

Christ the Bridegroom icon, detail

So pray for me and my fellow Orthodox Christians.  Western Easter is now in the rearview mirror.  But our own liturgical-year journey is reaching its apex.  In particular, pray that I would take advantage of the opportunity afforded by these services to enter into the repentance and reconciliation and new life to which they point.

Dome and Pantocrator of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs, CO

Oh and while all this is going on, I am still a missionary candidate with OCMC, still praying that God would open the way for me to return to Kenya where I can continue to serve Him and His Church on the faculties of Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary and St. Paul’s University.  Since last I wrote, I have received several major gifts from unexpected sources which took me completely by surprise.  To date I can account for about 80% of what I need.  Including ministry expenses I still need to raise about $700/month in support (which comes out to about $17,000 over two years).  I have been invited to visit at least three churches and maybe four later on in April and May.  Pray that God would move His people to become the means of my ministry in Kenya.

Seminarians Breaking Bread at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi

Some of you have made monthly pledges.  Now is the time to start sending them in!  Others of you may want to become a financial supporter of this ministry.  If you want to join my support team, you can start right now by going to the www.OCMC.org website and clicking on the ‘Support’ button at the bottom of my page: http://www.ocmc.org/about/view_missionary.aspx?MissionaryId=41
Or if you email me, I’ll be glad to send you a support envelope that you can mail in to OCMC: jwblack@ocmc.org .  Also, if you know of any other persons, friends or family members who may be interested in supporting a mission such as mine, then please let me know and I’ll be happy to share some information with them!

In order to be on the ground in Kenya and ready to teach for the fall semester, I really need to depart from the States no later than July, which means my support needs to be in by June.  Would you pray and ask God if He wants you to be part of His team that makes this happen?  This last $17,000 is proving to be the hardest, because I do not know who else to ask at this point.  So pray with me that God would somehow enable me to meet this goal, and that I could finally go. 



Jesus Himself said, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’ (Luke 10:2)  Here I am.  Send me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fasten Seatbelt Sign Is Illuminated: When Totalitarian World-Views Collide


Let me try to state the issue as clearly as I can.  Fully 90% of American Christians believe that homosexual acts are fundamentally against God’s intended purpose for humanity.  Sex is intended for the covenant relationship between a man and a woman for the primary purpose of bringing children into the world.  A homosexual relationship is a symptom of a greater disorder and brokenness, and as such is one of a number of behaviors, attitudes and postures that the Bible describes as ‘sin’.  ‘Sin’ is described by many as ‘missing the mark’, the mark being what we men and women were created to know and be and enjoy.  Homosexuality is one of many behaviors and attitudes that Christians understand as ‘immoral’ and therefore sinful.  Sin settles for something less than God’s good, and one’s choice to sin cuts us off from God’s good and thus increasingly from God and one another.  The ultimate sin is idolatry.  Idolatry seeks to replace the God who is perceived to be in the way of what one wants with a ‘god’ more amenable to one’s desires.  The result is moral chaos; the boundaries of morality begin to shift and shift again until the field of play is transformed into something else altogether.


On the other side, for the first time in our history a majority of Americans have rejected Christian morality as having any authority in their lives or any relevance to their culture.  Furthermore, a majority of Americans now believe there is nothing wrong whatsoever with homosexual acts or with being ‘gay’ or being LBTG along with a growing list of additional capital letters, each one standing for a sexual practice that the former majority culture deemed perverse.  A thirty-plus year effort has succeeded in redefining homosexuality from being a moral issue to being a civil rights issue.  Agreeing with the homosexual lobby, American courts have, over the past 20 years, struck down every law criminalizing homosexual behavior and have increasingly sided with homosexual plaintiffs seeking redress for practices perceived as discriminatory.  Having achieved the same legal status as African Americans and women in terms of validating the right of homosexuals to be free of discrimination in the workplace, marketplace and public arena, the homosexual lobby has become increasingly strident in their attempts to dismantle the old Christian morality that is widely perceived as being the driving force behind the previous marginalization of the homosexual community.  So when a baker couple in Oregon refused to make a cake for a homosexual wedding, the offended homosexual couple took the small business to court and won.  The bakery was ordered to pay a fine of up to $150,000 for refusing service to this homosexual couple. [http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/oregon-bakery-pay-gay-couple-refused-cake-article-1.2103577].  With a skillful use of the courts, a sympathetic media and a powerful strategy of public shaming any person, institution or organization seen as in the way of its agenda (‘outrage’ is the operative word), the homosexual movement (and its powerful allies in media, education, business, entertainment and government) has engineered and benefited from the most rapid change in American public morality in the history of the republic.


Increasingly, the homosexual community is attacking/taking the offense against groups it perceives as stigmatizing it or demeaning it or otherwise suggesting that homosexual morality is somehow deficient.  Groups such as the Boy Scouts, university religious groups, not to mention Christian businesses whose owners and/or employees may feel morally compromised if they are perceived as accommodating homosexual marriage or condoning homosexual behavior, for example—all of these groups and more have felt the wrath of hostile litigation and the shaming tactics employed by the new cultural elite.


Since 1980, the word ‘sin’ has gone out of favor in the eyes of the majority culture, perceived as being judgmental.  By redefining morality through the lens of the anti-discrimination movements of the past, a new binary morality has emerged in the homosexual activist community.  One is in the right if one is for inclusiveness (i.e. accepting and including us as homosexuals); one is a bigot and a hater if one is not.  The old morality is dismissed because it discriminates (specifically, it discriminates against us homosexuals); unsurprisingly, therefore, the old morality has become the problem.


In some corners of  the fragmented Christian perspective, there have been attempts to accommodate the homosexual agenda by accepting the validity of homosexual relationships and allowing for the ordination of practicing homosexuals into Christian ministry (The Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches come to mind). Most recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) changed their definition of marriage to allow same-sex relationships to be included.  However noble the intentions of the leaders of these American churches, the effect has been an abandonment of traditional and historic Christian morals in favor of the morals of the homosexual agenda.  In other words, even in many Christian circles, there has been an inability to comprehend that there is such a thing as a Christian morality.  Many in these churches have accepted uncritically the homosexual agenda’s assertion that any form of passing judgment is wrong (unless, of course, the object of one's judging is another’s bigotry).  These Christians have accepted the majority culture’s perspective that causing offense is the worst ‘sin’ one could commit, and that non-judgmental accommodation to the wider culture is the true Christian stance.  But from the standpoint of traditional and historic Christianity, moral standards are not decided by local preference or convenience; morality is accommodation to God’s own revealed character.  Now have Christians made a hash of attempting to force Sinai covenant (OT) morality on Christians when Jesus (and the NT) sets the Christian community in a different and even more profound direction?  Absolutely.  But Christian exegetical mistakes in this direction in no way eclipse the real issue that the fountain of Christian morality is Jesus Himself and that to choose a different moral path than that of Jesus is to take one outside the boundaries of the Christian community, historically understood.


The essence of the conflict now upon us is that of colliding totalitarian world-views.  Boiled down, it can be stated thusly.  An aspect of the Christian world view considers homosexual behavior (among many other behaviors such as greed, idolatry, theft, hatred, sloth, murder, fornication, adultery, etc) to be immoral.  Given that this behavior is at the heart of homosexual identity, such a stance is, by definition, offensive to members of the homosexual community.  On the other hand, an aspect of the emerging world-view of the homosexual community considers any activity, speech or behavior that puts down, discriminates against or hinders the homosexual community in any way (or is perceived by an individual or the community as doing so) is labeled as bigotry and the individuals involved as ‘haters’.  From the perspective of the homosexual community, this is, morally, the worst thing that anybody could do.  The moral force of this position has to do with its identity with the Civil Rights movement and the movement for equal rights for women.  Identifying the struggle of homosexuals with that of African Americans and women has been a key strategy of the homosexual agenda.  Homosexual activism against any threat to that equality, real or perceived, has become the engine driving the various outrage campaigns that are serving to expand homosexual rights ever further into American culture, business, media and education.


These two world-views are presently colliding, and the train wreck is playing out in slow motion across the landscape of American public life.  While it was brilliant strategy on the part of the homosexual community to redefine their agenda away from the realm of morality into the arena of civil rights, it is a complete irony that the original civil rights movements were driven, not by secular values and outrage, but by Christian morality applied in the public square.  Having appropriated the language of the civil rights movements, the homosexual agenda has vacated their meaning (and their history) of any Christian moral agenda.  Moreover, having gained a hearing in the American public square by a skillful use of the moral philosophy of relativism (no religion/philosophy/morality is better than the other), the new culture is refusing to extend to other minority perspectives with which it disagrees (most pointedly the moral perspective held by conservative Christians) the same respect it has demanded from everyone else.  In any other context this would be identified simply as hypocrisy.  But because the homosexual agenda believes it has the right to set the moral agenda for our emerging secular culture, consistency is apparently expendable if it conflicts with the ultimate goals of the movement.


The goals of the homosexual community and that of the Christian community are diametrically opposed.  Both are working towards a vision of society that the other finds an abomination.  In the past, the Christian community controlled the levers of power in America.  Christian morality (however imperfectly) informed the laws of the land.  Christian behavior was enforced in public if not in private.  Changes in existing  law and practice deemed wrong (such as slavery and civil rights) were made from arguments based in Christian morality.  This was considered by American citizens to be normative – the way things should be. 


But in the short span of thirty years, this Christian cultural hegemony is all but gone.  Even this week, politicians, business leaders, cultural icons and even the NCAA are all lining up to condemn a law passed by the Indiana state legislature intended to ensure religious liberty.  The fear is that people, in the name of religion, will discriminate against homosexuals (like refuse to make their wedding cakes just because they are homosexual, and worse).  Even the possibility of such discrimination has provoked such media and cultural outrage that this story has been the lead on almost all the major news outlets I read and watch this week. 


The great problem, of course, is that most American Christian churches as a matter of faith discriminate against homosexuality, just as they do against every other form of immorality.  For these Christians, people who engage in such behavior have replaced God’s standards with their own.  They have willfully chosen to separate themselves from God’s purpose for His creation, and desperately need to turn back (repent) and be reconciled with their Maker and His purpose for their lives.  They are, by definition, unbelievers.  They are to be loved, but their rebellious behavior is not something that can be accepted or accommodated, much less condoned, in the church.  However much the other side in this argument wishes to reframe the debate in terms of civil rights, it does not change the fact that for most Christians the issue remains one of morality.


As one might imagine, it is profoundly offensive for members of the homosexual community to have their behavior and orientation, if not their identity, labeled as immoral.  And it is just as offensive and shocking for Christians to have their morality labeled as ‘hateful’ and ‘bigoted’.  Unfortunately for Christians, they are currently on the wrong side of the present cultural shift.  And just as the former Christian majority saw no problems in using the power of government and culture to promote and enforce its moral vision, it should not surprise the now Christian minority if an alien world view uses the same levers of coercion to impose its version of morality on the nation.  This means that Christians will be forced to choose either to accommodate the new morality or face the legal, social and economic consequences.  This is already happening.


I don’t pretend to know the future of Christianity in America, but the current trajectory does not bode well, at least for the way things have been.  At the very least, the cozy relationship between Christianity and government, business and media is receding into history.  And the new masters of our culture are hell-bent on extirpating Christianity and it’s anti-homosexual morality as a meaningful influence.  It has been shocking enough to see Christians targeted in places like Kenya, Iraq, Syria and Egypt by a Muslim totalitarian world view.  What is completely unexpected is that in such a ‘Christian nation’, Christians are being isolated and targeted by a new emerging secular totalitarian world view, one that has already demonstrated its willingness to use the courts and the media, as well as their corporate and governmental allies to punish their enemies and bully their opponents until they toe the new line.  Christians in America are not used to being treated as a despised minority.  Suffering has not ever been equated with following Christ in this country.  This may be about to change.



UPDATE:
My friend Robert H. has written very helpfully:

[The] only distinction I would make is that in our tradition we wouldn't frame it quite this way regarding [the role of sex]: 'Sex is intended for the covenant relationship between a man and a woman for the primary purpose of bringing children into the world.'

I think the consensus Orthodox position is that there is no single 'primary purpose' to sex in marriage; it's not just for procreation but first and foremost the expression of the relationship itself = love (an icon of God Who is love) and that the bearing of children is the natural fruit of that love.  So both love and procreation are deeply valued, the latter begotten of the former (my construct).  And for those of us not blessed with children in our marriage, the New Covenantal dimensions of love can be fully expressed and the propagation of love still happen, just not quite the same way as having [children].  Orthodoxy is always unsettled when there is a 'goal' or 'end' to something which we call a Mystery! The RC Church and the [other churches in the] West to a degree, tended to make the bearing of children the 'engine' and abiding love something of the caboose on the train, which could even be uncoupled from the engine at times...

Given that I bring only brokenness to any discussion on marriage, I'm grateful for the chance to be better instructed.