Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Knowability of God: Looking for Assurance and Hope in Times Such as These

Humor me for just a moment as I let my nerd out only to work my way back to why any and all of this matters for such a time as this. In other words, bear with me as I move from the dense to the deeply practical and even pastoral. 

One of the central doctrines of Karl Barth’s theology is the knowability of God. In many ways, this is the foundation and bedrock of all Barth writes about in his vast volumes of dialectic theology- God can be and is made known to us in God’s self-revelation as Jesus Christ. This is Barth’s great prolegomena and theological preface. Barth doesn’t waste time defending, advocating, or crafting clever apologetics about the existence or viability of God. God was. God is. God will always be. 

Barth is a Christian and writes as a Christian to the Church: “God is God and that in His revelation is also God among us and for us” (Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 68).

This enables Barth to move on to expositions on the knowability of God as that which frames and sustains our uniquely Christian movement in and through the world and towards the ultimate goal of reconciliation, i.e. the last published volume of his Church Dogmatics. For Barth, this is critical. The knowability of God is always moving us, and the whole of creation, forward and towards a greater and redeemed end in and through the vocation of Jesus Christ.

Yet, in terms akin to Barth, this is no theological abstraction. The knowability of God is manifested not only in the flesh and blood, work and proclamation of Jesus Christ, but also in the life and work of the Church as the collection of his disciples then and now, near and far.

In other words, the watching world will know we are Christians not by what we say alone, but even more so by what we do in the very places God has placed us. 

Again, Barth writes:
“Only as we stand in the truth, only as we are summoned, authorised and directed by it, can we refer and appeal powerfully and effectively to the truth, and in a way that will genuinely enlighten both ourselves and others. If not, we may carry out a theological movement which is correct in itself. But seen from the outside, it will have the appearance perhaps of a theological trick leading out of nothing into nothing” (Church Dogmatics II.1 p.69-70).

While it would appear ironic for Barth, an ecclesial architect of castles made from paragraphs,* to suggest right theology is not the chief end of humanity, that is precisely what he does. Yes, theology matters, but only in so much as it has the wings of an uncaged bird who moves freely within the world. 

So now- why does any of this matter? 

In these days of "alternative facts" and labels of “fake news,” when those in power function within their own variations of reality rooted in self-promotion, and when much of what we have trusted in political and religious systems and institutions is looked at with warranted suspicion, we wonder what we can know and trust anymore. 

We may even question the knowability of God and proclamations about God among us, with us, and for us. After all, if this were true, what are we to make of the bombings in Manchester and Kabul, bus raids in Egypt that take the lives of children on pilgrimage, detained immigrants and refugees who flee violence looking for safety in another land, elementary kids who cannot focus in the classroom because they did not eat breakfast that day….or yesterday…or the day before. If the knowability of God among us is to be our starting place for assurance in this life, does not the rest of our Christian hope collapse when we read of violence in South Sudan and yet another black youth killed by those sworn to protect, the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria to American armament manufacturing and sales to customers around the globe?

The answer, for some, is yes. Our present realities of injustice and despair can arrest any hope in the existence of a God who is near and able to impact for sustainable good. In many ways, this is the very lament of those who walked that Emmaus road after the crucifixion. 

As I make my morning commute and listen to public radio, I often doubt the knowability of God as one story bleeds into the next. But then I pause and remember the knowability of God is not an abstract pipe dream and theological treatise of intellectual assent. No. If we resign ourselves to mere words and books, debates and recluse religious convictions of idealogical privilege, God cannot and will not be knowable to the watching and wondering and longing world.  The knowability of God comes to us in real place and people who stand at these very places of despair and dare extend solidarity alongside those who suffer and wonder if God is there at all. In this light, I find deep assurance in the knowability of God through my sisters and brothers near and far who have devoted their entire lives to such critical works of advocacy, solidarity, justice, and social change rooted in their commitment to gospel.  

Said differently, we must not waste time on questioning the knowability of God and start living as the very embodiments of God alongside those who suffer and long for things to be made right and whole and safe again. We dare follow Jesus into the cruciform places, taking sides with those most marginalized and wounded by the various manifestations of evil. We are not to resign ourselves to middle-of-the-road jargon and instead look for the knowability of God, as Jesus taught us, among the “least of these.” 

Anything less is a mere religious trick from nothing to nothing. 

"God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this sidalone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it
(Church Dogmatics II. 1, p. 386). 

*I believe Barth would have loved Hamilton. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Despair, Misunderstanding, and Change: Recognizing Jesus on the Emmaus Road (excerpts from a sermon delivered on April 30, 2017)

In Luke’s gospel, he dares his readers to see the fullness of God in the person, work, and witness of Jesus Christ who came to deliver not only Israel, but also the entire Gentile world. These very Gentiles would become some of his primary readers who were encountering the story for the first time. So Luke begins his gospel in the same way he ends it, with this call to recognition. "I too decided," Luke writes, "after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophillus, so that you may know (Greek: recognize) the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke 1:4).

So that you may recognize. 

This is the same word used multiple times in chapter 24. But today’s story, the book end of Luke’s call to recognition, which has taken us from shepherd fields to the feeding of massive crowds, from controversial encounters with Syrophoenician women to the raising from the dead one of his closest friends named Lazarus, from garden to table to betrayal to cross to tomb then left empty, hinges on those who still found themselves unable to recognize the resurrected Christ as they walk their pilgrim road. Luke says they were kept from recognizing him- literally, their eyes were seized and arrested so they could not recognize Jesus when he came near.  Like a crafty filmmaker or storyteller, Luke leaves the reader wondering not only why these sojourners cannot, but also when will their eyes be loosed so they can recognize him. When will the reveal come? 

So first, what keeps them from recognizing Jesus? There are a few reasons- in many ways they are intertwined with what keeps us from seeing Jesus today.

First, there is despair. When the clouds are thick and gray, when our newsfeeds and radio waves are saturated with tragic and concerning events and fear and hostile rhetoric have become the new normal, when we experience personal loss and yet another reminder that those personal aspirations or visions for ______ may be unattainable, even the most optimistic among us may find it hard to recognize the hope we once held dear. Despair can be an arresting force that shackles our dreams, seizes our creativity, and fetters our vision away from any possibility of things being other than what they are. 

Theologian Andrew Root writes in his book, The Promise of Despair:
“If death had a Facebook profile its interests would not only be putting people in the grave but also killing their dreams, their loves, their peace, their dignity.”  

The two companions who traveled that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus knew this well. The resurrected Christ had come near, right in front of them, and Luke writes, “They stood still, looking sad.”  Said differently, they stopped on that road arrested by their despairing hearts in light of the death of their Teacher and Friend. 

What's important in today's story is how Christ draws near in this moment of despair. Jesus does not rush to revelation or pat answers to reduce their lament; he walks alongside. This is some of the best news in today's story- awareness that no matter how thick your clouds of despair, Christ draws near you not with dismissive answers but real presence, even when he may be difficult if not impossible to recognize. This is the call of the church, too, as we enter into the despairs of our communities, cities, and larger world not first to offer answers but solidarity and love so our neighbors may recognize the very compassion of Christ. 

Still, Jesus is not content to remain despairing. Neither should we. 

This is true for individuals, communities, nations, congregations, and denominations, too.  We must be careful not to become so trapped by our sufferings or narratives of decline that our eyes are arrested and unable to see resurrection possibilities in the very places we were called to serve.

It is fascinating to me that these two travelers are talking along the road and they lead with haven’t you heard about “these things” about the death and crucifixion of the Messiah? Resurrection was dismissed as idle tale and their ministry with Jesus believed to be over. Despair had a vice grip on their hopes and dreams and forward thinking.  Despair can have a vice grip on the church, too. Those who like to elevate their voices of reason and corporate memory come armed with proof that there is no hope for an alternative to what currently is and what will likely always be for a particular congregation. So many O church stand still looking sad, unable to recognize resurrection possibilities right before them, content to talk about closure or prolonged maintenance at best. Their ministry with Jesus is believed to be over. 

Here Jesus flips the foolishness and calls out their misunderstanding, which is another of this mornings roadblock to recognition. Misunderstanding

What did they misunderstand? I suggest it is what they said about “we had hoped he was the One to redeem Israel.” It is not that this was wrong- Jesus was all about delivering the covenant people. But if they had paid any attention at all, and if we have been in reading Luke, the thrust of the stories were about including the other- the Gentile- those labeled as beyond the scope of God’s promise. Their hope, on the contrary, was still insular. They were not able to recognize the resurrected Christ because they had misunderstood the goal of the biblical story- redemption of all the world. 

I was recently a part of a worship service with seminarians serving in one of our churches, part of our Presbytery’s Ministry and Leadership Incubator. One of the students, as part of the self-offering, held up a stick with pieces of rope hanging down. She then began to talk about how the disciples used nets to fish- not hooks. These nets were created as rope from opposite ends were woven together into a tool to gather in the fish; opposing ends used to draw in the masses. 

We would rather put hooks on the end of each rope, maybe content with luring one fish at a time in solitude. Or if you are like me, no fish ever, unless they accidentally run into my line and are get snagged. True story.  But nets, while they take time in their weaving, working likely with other people, they are able to gather in the multitude. Especially when they are cast on the other side of the boat. 

How often we misunderstand the gospel.  Instead of finding more reasons to bind ourselves to one another as we form an inclusive community of grace and love, we build walls of exclusion or simply sit idle in despair grumbling as we fish alone and wonder why they aren't biting at our old and trusted bait.

This makes it not only difficult for us to recognize Christ, but also and more tragically difficult for the watching world to recognize Christ within us. 

Which leads to the final barrier to our recognition- change. The last time they had seen the Messiah was in the exhaustion of the events that led to his crucifixion. So when they see the One who has been to the other side of death and made new and whole again, they cannot recognize him. 

This past September I grew a beard. It was a nice beard. I loved my beard. When I walked into the office after an extended weekend with the beard, I got many interesting looks from those who did not recognize me and my new appearance. Then, on Easter weekend, I shaved it off as a sign of new life. My four-month old daughter, who only new me with the beard, did not recognize me. Until I spoke- and when I did, her face lit up and her toothless smile became as wide as the ocean.  

Change in appearance can make it difficult to recognize even the most beloved of people. The same can be said of communities and the church. Yet change is often necessary- especially for the church- if we are to participate in the resurrection in such a way that speaks into the neighborhoods we have been called to love and serve; these communities are constantly changing. 

But change can be fearful.  For some, change may be painful and make it somewhat difficult to recognize what they have grown to love for so long. It may even make their ability to see Jesus in a particular place a challenge. We would do well to walk alongside them in the same way Jesus walked alongside Cleopas and the unnamed companion. For others, changes are welcome and refreshing. They usher in a new era of witness that just may make the mission of the church more recognizable to their neighbors who may be searching for belonging and assurance that there is a God who loves them. Be careful not to allow these changes to become the new structures of idolatry unwilling to be adapted and reformed when that day comes- and it will come. Today’s story dares us to embrace what it means to be reformed not only in theology, but also in our church forms, systems, structures, and methods for faithful witness.  Eyes opened to change can be the difference between cross and resurrection, Jerusalem and Emmaus, death and newness of life.  

Despair. Misunderstanding. Change. They can be arresting agents that prevent us from recognizing Jesus.

But then we come to Luke’s reveal. The story has built to this moment and, to our surprise, recognition comes in the familiar. Luke says, “when he was at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”  

Much like my daughter, whose eyes widened when her baby-faced father spoke to her, the eyes of these pilgrims were opened in the familiarity of grace and gratitude found in the sacramental table. As they broke bread with this stranger, they recognized why their hearts burned within as Jesus opened the Scriptures to them. 

This is a good word for the church today. In light of our past and budding future, may we be a people committed to moving through despair and towards possibilities; to having our understanding of our call and witness renewed and reformed as we cast our nets wide into our communities and offer places of belonging to those frequently dismissed or ignored; and to embracing change as redemptive opportunity to encounter the person of Christ in one another and strangers who just may gather around this table and break bread with us.* As we do all this, may we recognize Christ as walking alongside us on this pilgrim road called faith.  This Christ is the One who dares us to be, as the hymn goes,** drawn by the Spirit’s tether into resurrection possibilities that just may make the gospel recognizable in even the most despairing places. 

*I love what theologian Justo Gonzalez writes, “In [the church’s] worship, in this eating together that is communion, the church has the opportunity and the duty to give the world a glimpse of a life between the past of what God has done and the future of what God has promised to do” (The Story Luke Tells Us 109).

**Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether (Hymn 504, Union Seminary 1957)