“In the Shadow of Death; in the Brilliance of Life”

A one-eyed man is much more incomplete than a blind man,
for he knows what he’s lacking.”
Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is set in 15th-century Paris. Quasimodo is the hunchbacked and horribly deformed bell ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is beaten and pilloried by an angry mob for plotting the failed abduction of the beautiful street dancer Esmeralda. Esmeralda’s heart is as beautiful as her outward beauty. She takes pity on Quasimodo during his ordeal: she offers him a cup of water to comfort him. At that point, Quasimodo falls in love with her.

Monsignor Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral and benefactor of Quasimodo, also fell in love with Esmeralda. When he discovered that Esmeralda had fallen in love with Captain Phoebus, the twisted archdeacon stabs the captain to death. He, then, accuses Esmeralda of the crime. In the cathedral, Quasimodo shelters Esmeralda from her accusers. Later he releases her to a group he thought was kindly disposed to her. But it was not; he, the recently crowned King of the Fools, was easily fooled. Esmeralda is subsequently hanged for the crime. In his grief and despair Quasimodo throws the archdeacon from the cathedral tower. The epilogue: two skeletons are found in Esmeralda’s tomb: that of a hunchback embracing a woman.

goodreads.com_2019-04-23 10_27_07-Victor Hugo (Author of Les Misérables)

Victor Hugo photo courtesy of goodreads.com

Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame to illustrate a harsh reality we face in this life. We humans are capable of great genius, of great works of art like the Notre Dame Cathedral. We are capable of great religious and moral feats like those of St. Francis, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King. But, we are also capable of profound ugliness. In the horizon of the beautiful Cathedral of Notre Dame people commit profound acts of ugliness. We are the one-eyed person who is worse off than the blind person, because we see our potential; yet, we fail. Like Esmeralda we are beautiful. Like the twisted Monsignor Frollo we are ugly with our hidden motivations, judgments, compulsions and contradictions between what we profess and what we do. Yet, our ugliness longs for beauty. Our ugliness calls out to the beauty of the Beautiful Savior. We see ugliness in the shadow of death, but we see beauty in the brilliance of life.

“He had no comeliness that we should desire him.” Those words come from the Book of Isaiah. We Christians identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant in his state of humiliation. The nadir of this humbled state is that there was no beauty about him. There was no beauty in his mangled and tortured body that hung on the cross. He was repulsive, one from whom people would rather hide their faces. His condemnation brought ugliness upon himself, his associates and his family. “Cursed is the person who hangs on a tree.”

In a theological sense, moreover, Jesus is most repulsive and ugly. “He who knew no sin became sin for us,” Paul says. Jesus took on our sin. He took on our failings. He took on our ugliness. Jesus, accordingly, suffered an ignominious death on the cross. His cross was not only his shame, or our shame by theological extension; it was also meant to shame the Jewish people. His death was not merely to be a deterrent to criminals; it was blatant bigotry against the whole Jewish people as Jesus was tagged “The King of Jews.” It was another imperial, Roman act of breaking the spirit of the Jewish people by suggesting they were inferior to the Romans. If their spirits were broken, then they were less likely to resist, to fight. Those who benefit from the exploitation of others must break their spirits. Racism and sexism, just to name two of many “isms,” have served as the underlying ideology to break the spirits of African Americans and women to keep them in their places for the economic benefit of others. The breaking of the spirits of others throughout human history is the ugliest aspect of life in the shadow of death.

Like all places that house the dead, the tomb of Jesus was also an ugly place. As humans, we are wont to whitewash tombs, beautify them to lessen the ugly, painful reality of death. For this reason cemeteries are well manicured. They occupy some of the most beautiful spaces in a given city. Yet, when you walk through a cemetery you are walking through a living oxymoron. The ugliness of death defies the beauty of burial places. There is no dressing up the ugly reality of death. Death is our ugly reality that drives us to cling to someone more beautiful than we, like the ugly Quasimodo clung to the beautiful Esmeralda.

On this Easter Sunday, the ugliness experienced in the shadow of death drives us to the beauty cascading from the brilliance of life. The Marys went to the tomb of Jesus to care for his body, but they found the tomb empty. There was no body. There was no dead body to venerate. A light not of this world pierced the tomb and reanimated the lifeless Jesus. The light of the Holy Spirit both reanimated his body and glorified it, giving it the powers to fill the necessary dimensions of life to keep his promises that where two or more are together in his name he is there, or when bread and wine are blessed with his performative word we participate in the mystical body of Christ that houses saints both in this life and the life to come. In Christ, they have real communion.

The empty tomb dazzles with life. The two angels don dazzling apparel. The whole scene is suffused with light. The light is the source of the beauty that alters the ugly scene of the tomb where the dead body of Jesus laid. The empty tomb wreaks of the abundant life that Jesus came to give us through his victory over sin, death and devil. Our experience of ugliness in the shadow of death drives us to the beauty of the brilliance of life. His death is our death; yet, his life is our life. “In him is life and his life is the light of the world.”

On Monday, April 15, 2019, did the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral trouble you? Though you may not have visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, you nevertheless know it. It is a part of the Paris skyline in movies. But, the Notre Dame Cathedral is more than an another building in the Paris skyline. It is the symbol of our faith. People of great faith built it and other great cathedrals around the world. People who loved Jesus and his mother created such beauty. The cathedral was to house the most beautiful things. The cathedral was in the center of the town. The cathedral bells marked the seasons, times and festivals. The cathedral was the symbol of interdependence and what great beauty humans together can accomplish. The beautiful cathedral was the product of faith in Christ Jesus.

The cathedral, moreover, was the place of worship and great learning. There was no contradiction between faith and reason at the cathedral. It was the place for quiet contemplation and profound spirituality. The cathedral brought together the First Space of beauty for the five senses. It brought together the Second Space of religious ideology and profound study for the head. It brought together the Third Space of contemplation and deep spirituality for the heart. Cathedrals were open 24-7 for personal prayer in a sacred place. The cathedral brought together the whole person: body, head and heart. This all begs the question: what institution is doing that today? What institution also places a moral imperative on us that we treat everyone in every generation with respect and love? What institution demands that we love our enemies and pray for those who spitefully abuse us? What institution continues to inculcate moral courage, though people fail to live up to the high standard? What institution demands that we respect all people at both ends of life? There is no institution like the church, cathedral, or Christians simply gathered around Word and Sacrament. To lose these will be to lose our soul in the West.

Truth be told, the cathedrals in Europe are empty. Soon, the churches in America will be empty. They have become museums. There is a fire that burned all of France long before the actual fire burned the Notre Dame Cathedral. It is the fire of anger that comes with prosperity and wealth. Never before have we in the West been more prosperous; yet, we are so angry. Prosperity and wealth have not made the West less angry, less anxious, less phobic about the challenges of the future. Because we have lost the center of our lives, we are angry and full of anxiety. There is no center in the West and the mercurial business of politics provides no lasting center. We no longer hear the bells.

Look what survived the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral: the Pietá and the altar cross. They were not burned. There must be a metaphor there. What does it tell us? The love, kindness and mercy of God are forever. Churches, cathedrals and people come and go. The love, kindness and mercy of God are forever. If they are forever, why not, then, make them the center of your life now and already live an abundant life of peace, love and joy, which, according to our Resurrected

www.sunnyskys.com_2019-04-23 10_11_18-All 3 Irreplaceable Rose Windows Of Notre Dame Have Survived The Fire

Photo courtesy of sunnyskys.com

Lord, our Beautiful Savior, is a possibility now? To share in his resurrection is to take hold of this possibility of beauty in the brilliance of life and be raised up from the ugliness of the shadow of death. Such beauty is the transcendent food for which your soul yearns. No amount of money can satisfy this yearning, for it is a hunger from another world, another dimension of life. We are complex humans, accordingly. We live liminal lives between the shadow of death and the brilliance of life. Money and prosperity are not enough to negotiate this liminal space. The soul that follows a transcendent beauty into the light is not haunted by the ugliness of the shadow of death. It is already risen in Christ.

What’s Your Selma?

A sermon given on The Confession of St. Peter and based on Mark 8:27-35

Photo courtesy of thechristians.com

Photo courtesy of thechristians.com

The film Selma is a poignant portrayal of the machinations behind the passage of the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965. To bring about this landmark legislation, lives were lost and reputations soiled.  There was every indication that Dr. Martin Luther King should not have pushed President Johnson on federal legislation that would alter the political culture of the South.  First and foremost, King had no support from Johnson. Secondly, a putative march through rural Alabama to pressure the political establishment was a grave risk in view of the inflammatory speech of George Wallace, governor of the state of Alabama. And finally, King’s family tugged at his heartstrings: he was exposing them to terror and death.

At the conclusion of his iconic I Have a Dream speech in Washington in 1963, King was arguably the most admired man in America.  In 1964 he was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize and thereby received international acclaim for himself and the movement of which he was the titular head.  After those two great honors, King could have rested on his laurels.  He could have parlayed his reputation into a pastorate of a college town where he could have taught occasionally and published books.

Yet, there was another destiny driving him, an inexorable destiny from which he could not deviate. That destiny drove King to make the great confession to America from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.  He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context.

That larger American context was the abuse of power.

 Photo courtesy of www.cnn.com

“He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context…” Photo courtesy of http://www.cnn.com

Powerful monied interests in the South foisted a wedge between blacks and whites. Monied interests promoted competition between the two groups to keep wages low. King proclaimed that it was monied interests that destroyed the Populist Movement after the Civil War, a movement that held up the hope for a better life for blacks and poor whites.  According to King, monied interests took the world from black folks and gave them Jesus.  They took the world from poor white folks and gave them Jim Crow laws that made them feel good about being white, though they were as poor as church mice.

Photo courtesy of dusiznies.blogspot.com

“King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma…” Photo courtesy of dusiznies.blogspot.com

King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma to march and expose this abuse of power, which was foundational to slavery and crippling racism since the Reconstruction.  How else does one explain that only 7% of whites owned slaves in the South; and, yet, this 7% had a strangle hold on the federal government since its founding.  Powerful monied interests created a caste system in the South that endured into the 1960’s.  They gave whites a convenient scapegoat for their bad feelings about their economic misery.

King’s Selma speech was one that he had to make. The calling on his life conspired to put him in that place and time to call out the economic interest at the root of racism and discrimination.  King’s Selma speech is arguably his greatest speech because of its hard-hitting social and economic commentary on America.

It was a speech that King had to give; it was a confession that he had to make.

What’s your Selma? 

Selma is a metaphor for something that you are compelled to do.  Your calling in life has placed you on a trajectory from which you cannot deviate.  You feel compelled to act, to speak, to respond. You know that if you do not grab hold of your Selma moment, you will be less a person; you will have missed out on real transformation.  St. Peter had a Selma moment. His Selma moment was to make a confession like King.  Peter was inspired to reveal the real identity of Christ, that he was not merely a man, a prophet, or a rabbi, but the Son of God.

In the text under consideration (Mark 8:27-35), Jesus and his disciples were walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi.  No mention of a name in the Bible is ever superfluous.  Every city name associated with the ministry of Jesus has meaning. It is profoundly significant where Peter is compelled by the Spirit to make the great confession of Jesus’ identity.

Just as Selma was the right place and the right time for Dr. Martin Luther King to make his confession, making it in the heartland of racial bigotry and hatred, so Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God is in the headquarters of Roman power in Palestine.

Caesarea Philippi was the provincial capital of Palestine.  It was where Pontius Pilate, the governor, ruled mercilessly, garnering a reputation as a cruel and tyrannical ruler.  Caesarea Philippi was the seat of Roman power, a visible reminder to Jews that they were a subjugated people.  In the horizon of Rome’s power in Palestine, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  He got various answers: “You are Elijah”; “You are one of the prophets.”  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter says, “You are the Christ!”  In Hebrew and Aramaic, “You are the Messiah!”

In making that statement, Peter is risking his life. It was a capital crime punishable by death to claim that someone other than Herod the Great or one of his heirs was the Messiah. To name someone else as the Messiah was to create disorder.  Romans abhorred disorder.  Later Jesus would be charged with fomenting disorder.  The Romans discouraged disorder with violent forms of torture and execution like crucifixion.  Nevertheless, in the presence of Roman power and defiance of it, the Holy Spirit empowers Peter to call Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.

In Peter’s confession, we see the nature of a calling from God. A calling is not to be denied.  It is not to be intimidated; it is inexorable.  A calling from God will use whatever unlikely people and circumstances to express itself, to reveal its truths to humanity.  It especially works in the people who are open to receive it and view life and the world from another perspective to remake it according to God’s values of love, justice and mercy.  Such people are courageous.  Even the Romans have to admire the courage of such people who speak and act in support of ideas for which they were willing to die. A church father noted that the church is built on the blood of the martyrs. The martyrs were people like Peter inspired by the Spirit to declare Jesus as the Christ, to declare that he is a better way to live.  He is the source of the abundant life.  Martyrs have the courage to stand in the corridors of power and declare that Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus as the Christ proffers a different understanding of power. After Peter is empowered to make the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus begins to teach what kind of messiah he would be.  He would be a different messiah than the one generally understood by the people in his day.  He would be a different messiah because he would use power differently.  He would not exploit people to bolster an earthly kingdom, which always ensues from a bloodily use of power.  Rome uses power to dehumanize people and enslave them.  Rome uses power to steal wealth and human potential from vulnerable people. This is what empires do. The Assyrians, the first empire of the ancient Near East, toppled Israel in 722 B.C.E. with their scorched-earth policy.  After the Assyrians, the Babylonians carted off with the talent and wealth of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E.

The Persians became ascendant and displaced the Babylonians as the next imperial power. They allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  Some returned; most stayed in Babylon, however. The ones who returned to Judah rebuilt the temple with Iranian money. The Persian policy of funding subjugated peoples to build up their religious institutions was not done out of the goodness of the Persians’ heart. This was part and parcel of an ideology that proved more effective and less costly at controlling subjugated peoples than with troops.

The Greeks toppled the Persians and became the imperial world power. Under Antiochus IV in the second century B.C.E. the Greeks sponsored state terrorism, whose intent was to totally destroy the Jewish people.  The Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was the latest avatar of abusive power that dehumanized Jewish people, long familiar with the feeling of being in the crosshairs of abusive power.  Jesus as messiah stands against this use of power. He teaches his disciples that potentates of the world lord over others with power. The disciples of Jesus were not to mimic such abuse of power. Jesus’ disciples were to use power to serve people, to thereby empower others to reach their potential as humans.  On Maundy Thursday, Jesus gives a telling example of his understanding of power when he washes his disciples’ feet. So, they were to use their power to serve and empower others. In the process of serving, you transform others and yourself.  Your Selma moment is when you are impelled to serve, to use power in a transformative way like Jesus. In so doing, you are invited to transform and be transformed.

There is nothing more offensive than when religious people use power to hurt and to maim.  When Dr. King called for religious leaders to come to Selma in support of voters’ rights legislation, he touched their consciences. Many responded, because they knew the sins of the church. They knew historically how power was used to dehumanize and the church was witting or unwitting accomplices in support of a dehumanizing status quo.

Many understood that King confronted them with their own Selma moment, a call to go speak, transform and be transformed as a way to redeem the sins of the past.

Yet, there were many religious leaders who could not see God’s hand in the Civil Rights Movement. For them, Selma was not a transformative moment. They were quite content with the status quo, because they and their people were not being hurt. So, some took refuge in a two-kingdom theology that proved merely to be a hovel of the cowardly. They thought that by ignoring Selma they were being faithful to their theological values and commitments expressed in their presumed two-kingdom theory when it was really their cultural isolation and separatism that informed their failure to respond to Selma.

Photo courtesy of outthereradio.net

Photo courtesy of outthereradio.net

I shall never forget that on the weekend that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, my beloved pastor who confirmed me at the age 14 never mentioned the death of King. There was no prayer offered up in behalf of the civil rights leader.  It was as though that tragic event never happened and had no relevance whatsoever for his congregation.

I suspect that that quietism over King’s assassination was duplicated many times over throughout the church body to which I belong. God, however, is never left without a witness…

For the many quietistic pastors who saw the Civil Rights Movement merely as a political phenomenon, there were many others who saw more.  My childhood Episcopalian priest, Father Nale, had the eyes to see more in the Civil Rights Movement than what was apparent on the surface.  He heard King’s call to religious leaders to come to Selma and march. Father Nale left his parish in the heart of South Central Los Angeles to heed King’s call.  He marched with King.  It was his Selma moment to transform and to be transformed through a bold confession that power can be used to serve and heal.  Our Selma moments arise when we come to the realization that our own power can be used to transform others and ourselves in service to them; this is a use of power in service of redemptive love.

Where power serves redemptive love, profound reversals of the status quo occur.  The preeminent reversal of the status quo is that of the sinner to saint in the experience of the forgiveness of sins.

A reversal occurs when we pray for our enemies and those who spitefully abuse us.

A reversal of the status quo occurs when we choose to forgive others.

Our hearts get freed of bitterness and rancor.

Finding Your Selma

A profound reversal of your personal status quo occurs when you practice contemplation. Contemplation makes you adept at not tying yourself to the ideologies of this world, as you learn to let go of all thoughts and feelings and thereby refuse to give them more value than they ought to have.

Thoughts generated by mindlessness should never be given value.

Most thoughts have their nativity in mindlessness, when we are not focused. Redemptive love that serves is never mindless. For, redemptive love is an exertion of your conscious self to express such love, as it is not natural to love in this way. To love redemptively demands your attention, your mindfulness.  The ego has another way to love that is turned inward to serve itself.

Contrary to the ego’s love, you consciously exert your will to choose to love redemptively as Jesus teaches.  It takes courage and volitional power to demonstrate redemptive love that reverses your limited worldview, your personal status quo, which is the home of the ego. Contemplation is the daily practice of expanding that status quo, pushing it out beyond the parameters of its theological justifications and rationalizations.

Theology can serve the oppressor as well as the oppressed. The key issue is whether theology serves redemptive love.

Your Selma moment is the invitation to go beyond the power games of the ego to a redemptive love that elicits you to serve and thereby experience transformation.

Your Selma compels you to use power to serve and to love in a redemptive way.

Photo courtesy of worldteamjourney.wordpress.com

Photo courtesy of worldteamjourney.wordpress.com