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Monday, April 21, 2014

On Eastertide

I am still relatively new to the practice of observing the Church Year and worshipping in a congregation guided by the Revised Common Lectionary. As a Baptist of Southern Baptist heritage I was largely unaware that there were seasons through which the Church progressed each year; actually I was only aware of Advent, and that was because the Catholic church in town placed these massive oil candles in the churchyard during that time of year.

Ever since Dr. Terry York presented the tradition of the Church Year and the cycle of the Lectionary to me in his Christian Worship class, though, I’ve been increasingly convinced that such a rhythm of life and such a connection to the world-wide Christian communion is not only within the scope of my Baptist principles but also may help my generation of Baptist pastors move our congregation beyond the Fundamentalist/Moderate controversy on which we teethed.

My congregation’s practice of observing the Church Year has recently taken us into the wilderness of Lent with our Lord. During these six Sundays our congregation has taken great pains to concentrate on our need for God’s sustenance and provision. We have called out our sins and meditated on our sinfulness. We have concluded that we are in need of a Savior, for who can rescue us from this body of death? We journeyed, painstakingly, agonizingly, slowly toward the Cross.

We intentionally neglected the joy of Easter, a joy we know would come. We knew that the tomb would be empty, that the Lord would at last defeat death and open for us the path to eternal life. We ignored that as best we could, though, so as to know our need and our thirst for that Lord and for his Life. We seemed to be surrounded by death, by prayers of renewal and by songs of lament.

Easter came - oh Glory did it come! We sang; we SANG! We sang old Baptist hymns and Handel’s “Messiah.” We read John’s account of the resurrection and we prayed amidst the chirping of birds and the palpable new life of spring. We worshipped.

But then Easter ended.

I went home and scattered plastic eggs for my toddler to find; I ate lamb with my Greek family members; I napped. But after all of that I had to pack my bag and prepare for another week of reality. This time there was no Lenten restriction to help me hunger through the day - all was resurrected joy and consummation.

The Church Year calls this time “Eastertide.” The seven Sundays after Resurrection Day form a happy antithesis to the Lenten season: whereas Lent is denial and despondency, Eastertide is joy and astonishment and the heavy exhale of a people who no longer fear death. The Church Year makes Easter the hinge, the high-water-mark of the story of Jesus and of all Christian life. We have the tough, long slough to the Cross before and the downhill road back to Emmaus from the empty tomb.

The passages for Eastertide are the other side of the Easter story, too. Suddenly we find bold, testifying disciples where cowards had recently stood. We read of the Hebrew Scriptures being understood in light of a new revelation of God through Jesus Christ. We see the Church being born after preaching that this same miracle-working, Kingdom-proclaiming Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Easter did in fact end. The event that we celebrated last Sunday was one single moment in history. But the consequences, the fallout from that miraculous day take more than one sermon or Bible study to work out. Here, here is where we begin to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling.” Here, in Eastertide, is where we begin to understand our new, re-created, forgiven identities in Christ.

I think of this season of Eastertide as a return from exile. In the first chapters of Ezra we read of the return of the Babylonian captives to Jerusalem. Can you imagine the joy that spread throughout the community when word came down from Cyrus that they could return home? What a celebration! They were showered with gifts and money and good things with which to re-establish God’s Temple and their society. What a critical, hinge moment for the Exiles.

Ezra recounts that there was a great celebration once the Exiles returned. There were special offerings and festivals and sacrifices. Soon, though, people noticed that there was no foundation upon which to rebuild the Temple. The celebration had to be modulated and actual work had to begin. If the Exiles were to truly be reunited with their God, they would need to understand and address the consequences, the fallout of their return.

This is the season for Christians to address the cosmic, eternal, and ultimately personal meaning of Easter. This is the season to not only confess sin, but to deal with it. This is the season to no longer point out the rubble of former temples; this is the season to clear the land and build upon the One Foundation.

So, to borrow from the artist Bastille, “where to we begin? The rubble or our sins?” Let’s get to work. It’s Eastertide.

Friday, April 4, 2014

On the "Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act" of 2014

Sometimes politics is, well, just politics. In the American system of government there often come times when politicians need to make sure everyone sees them doing something, even if the something they accomplish is repetitive, moot, or pointless.

A wonderful case on point is the recently ratified “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law on April 3rd. This law, which ostensibly protects the free exercise of religion in the State from undue burdens levied by the government, turns out to be nothing more than a copy of the Federal law signed by President Clinton in 1993.[1]

The text of the law passed in Mississippi is vague at best:

 5)  (a)  Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in paragraph (b) of this subsection.
       (b) Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person:
                        (i) Is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(ii) Is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.[2]

The language of the bill (especially its early sections) is identical to the Federal law passed during the Clinton administration. Only the addition of “In God We Trust” to the State Seal of Mississippi makes this bill significantly different from what has been on the federal books for 20 years.

The Mississippi legislature passed a law that serves little purpose other than to gin up support for legislators from the already dominant conservative majority of the state. But this is what politicians do; they fight battles that make them seem like heroes to their supporters but that do little in the grand scheme of things for the state. I get that - it is the securing of political capital that can be spent on truly important issues and ideas in months to come.

So why all the angst over this bill? If the Act is merely a repeat of an already valid law, why are so many groups coming out in vocal support of or opposition to it?

This is a case of the clash between the political process in Mississippi (and everywhere else in America) and the evangelical-dominated church culture of the state. What was a symbolic action by the legislature was a “die on this hill” measure for some Christians, including a great many Baptists in the state.

The conflict came at the point in the bill’s life when it was introduced in the Mississippi Senate. In that young version of the Bill the term “burden” is defined as follows:

"Burden" means any action that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies the exercise of religion by any person or compels any action contrary to a person's exercise of religion.  "Burden" includes, but is not limited to, withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil or administrative penalties or exclusion from governmental programs or access to governmental facilities.[3]

The troublesome clause is that anything that “compels any action contrary to a person’s exercise of religion” is considered a burden. This is certainly a bad definition, since it prohibits governmental recourse for anyone (which includes corporations since “corporations are people, my friend”) who denies services or refuses participation or work based upon their religion. It is this clause that deserved the ire of the LBGTQ community, the Jewish community, and any other group fearing discrimination by the overwhelmingly conservative Christian majority of Mississippi.

While this version of the Bill was being debated (it would be amended twice in its lifetime) the Mississippi Baptist Convention came out supporting it. Non-SBC pastors and Methodist ministers came out against this version of the Bill, too.[4] It is likely that these pressures to pass or kill the Bill did little to sway the legislature compared to the response from business leaders in Mississippi who removed their support for the measure so long as the controversial definition of “burden” was included.

Now that the Bill has passed in a form that is an uncontroversial as the Federal law already on the books, there is celebration from the SBC and pledges to repeal from the LBGTQ community.[5][6] But the thing they’re celebrating and demonizing ISN’T THE BILL THAT PASSED!

This is not a “we won, you lost” situation where the powers of Light and the advancement of the Kingdom of God defeated the hedonistic pagans of the darkness. Neither side won, neither side lost. This is just politics. But when the Christian community invests itself so heavily in the political process, a process that is designed to find common ground and to respond to the interests of the state, the outcome of this situation demand a celebration or a condemnation. We must chose sides and hold ground in such situations.

Unfortunately the Kingdom is the only thing not being advanced since Governor Bryant signed the Act. Instead we hear of Baptists crowing about “victory” as though anything was won or lost. Just like the politicians who have used Senate Bill 2681 as a prop in their campaigns to prove how conservative they are, the Baptists of our state are in great numbers claiming victory of some sort for truth or Jesus or something. A great many sermons will undoubtedly be preached on the great Kingdom win that the Act represents. Future campaigns to pass socially conservative legislation will remember this Bill as a victory and will use its success as momentum.

There is nothing to cheer about or mourn in the Act as it was signed, though. It is an empty statement that does not open the door to discrimination any more than the Federal law which it echoes. Any crowing or bemoaning at this point is purely political maneuvering.

In all of that, though, considering that the actual Act as signed into law is as harmless as Clinton’s 1993 Act, it seems that it’s all just politics; good-old Mississippi Baptist politics.