Marie Laveau, Nietzsche, and Jesus on the mountaintop

I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras and posting the blog versions. Click here for purple and here for green.

To talk about the history of voodoo and santeria in New Orleans is to talk about Marie Laveau. Her name, taken up by at least one daughter after her death, has become synonymous with the practice of the spiritualist folkways in the Big Easy. To this day the curious and the hopeful leave votives at Marie Laveau’s tomb in the hopes that the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans will aid them from beyond the grave. During her life she offered spiritual aid to slave and free, rich and poor alike that they might achieve or receive some elusive desire.

Louisiana voodoo is a relatively young amalgamation of African and European influences but draws from ideas dating back to the dawn of civilization. Throughout history we have often sought any advantage we can find over an existence which refuses to follow our will, giving rise to the kinds of beliefs, rituals, and sympathetic magic still seen today in voodoo. Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote extensively on this drive for control whether or not it is connected to spiritual practices, calling it the “will to power.” According to Nietzsche all living things, including already strong organisms, will ultimately reach for more power even at risk to their own life, affording the will to power a place of influence over the will to survive. It isn’t hard to agree with Nietzsche as we survey a landscape filled with so many of us who are willing to risk livelihoods, relationships, morals and lives to grab power.

ad1a3dbc-3841-41b8-a636-1f242a2b1dfbToday my look at the traditional colors of Mardi Gras concludes with gold, representing power, on the same Sunday many denominations mark as Transfiguration Sunday, a day set aside for Jesus’ dramatic display of power and glory on a mountaintop.This passage showcases Jesus’ power, particularly in connection with Old Testament images of Yahweh, but does little to define Jesus’ notion of power for us. We’ll have to look elsewhere in Scripture for that.

On another mountaintop, Jesus faced the temptation to compromise righteousness in exchange for power.If he would but bow down, the world and a chance to enact justice would be his without walking the road of suffering pointed to the cross. Both of the other two temptations faced by Jesus in this story revolved around the will to power. In each case Jesus is reminded of things to which he has claim but responded by giving it up in order to stay on the path of redemption on our behalf. Jesus knew that the will to power left unchecked does indeed supplant even the will to survival and ultimately leads to self-destruction. Paul therefore says of Jesus that rather than cling to his own deserved glory and power, he gave himself up and emptied himself on our behalf. Power then according to Jesus is having the right to claim something but giving it up to benefit someone else.We see God already indicating this ideology in the Torah when the Israelites are commanded to not harvest to the edges of their fields, pass over a second time, or claim fallen fruit in order that those in need might come and eat. Would common human sensibilities of power and dominion say that the farmer had a right to every bit which could be harvested? Yes. Does this understanding of power line up with the crucified Jesus? Absolutely not. True power belongs to the one who gives it up for another.

What does this mean for us? For starters, we should be eternally thankful that Jesus broke away from the will to power for our enormous benefit. We should also be aware that Jesus’ actions free us as well from power’s siren song. Resisting the will to power is increasingly hard but increasingly vital for a church residing in a nation which constantly dangles Egypt’s gold before our eyes. We must therefore constantly ask ourselves, how are we giving up power to benefit someone else?

Marie Laveau, Nietzsche, and Jesus on the mountaintop

Faith of our foreigners

I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras and posting the blog versions. Click here for purple.

Stephen F. Austin. Darrell K. Royal. “Kinky” Friedman. George W. Bush. Troy Aikman.

What do these famous individuals all have in common? If you said they’re all famous for contributions to Texas history, you’d be right. Yet despite their fame in the Lone Star State, none of them were born in Texas. This story holds true for many other famous “Texans.” That’s how I knew I had a shot in Texas as an Alabamian; perhaps I was born with an advantage if some of the biggest contributors weren’t actually born here, either. Again and again “outsiders” have come to Texas and made a undeniable impact.

5db84bd5-6670-4fe1-8f13-e52cce582e6cThis week my sermon series on the colors of Mardi Gras brings me to green, representing faith. Matthew 8  tells us simultaneously one of the most encouraging and most unsettling stories of faith found in Scripture. As he enters Capernaum Jesus encounters a centurion who asks that his paralyzed servant be healed. When Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s home to heal the servant, the centurion answers with a stunning confession of faith: “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

While possibly encouraging to some of his listeners, Jesus surely shook everyone within earshot to their core by answering, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Pay attention to the details here, folks. Some present may have been encouraged but all were shaken because this was the last thing anyone expected. Jesus, a Jewish teacher followed by Jews, places the crown of faith on a centurion. The supplicant here is an outsider as a Gentile, but much more of an outsider than a non-Texan who becomes a famous Texan. He’s a centurion, loyal to Rome and the face of that which oppresses the Jewish nation. Furthermore, some scholars have looked to the original Greek to posit that there was a pederastic (adult male to adolescent male) sexual relationship between them. While I can’t see enough evidence for such a definitive claim, we’re kidding ourselves if we think the crowd didn’t have such an offense to Jewish morals on their mind given its frequent occurrence among Roman authority figures. With all of this background, Jesus still says what he does about the man’s faith. But he doesn’t stop there, in essence declaring that many like this man will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven while many who are “from here” and “belong here” will be excluded.

This story is indicative of how God works on the whole. Faith in Jesus comes from unexpected places to tell us unexpected things. Simply put, if we’re going to follow the Jesus who recognized the centurion’s faith we’re going to have to be okay with being uncomfortable at times. In fact, if your faith never shakes you to your core, I’m positive you aren’t always following Jesus because our cores need shaking. Like the centurion, we are all born as outsiders to the Kingdom. It’s far too easy to let feelings of what might be called spiritual nativism take hold now that we’ve been welcomed in. This is exacerbated for those of us who grew up in Christian homes or a nation which some have declared to be “Christian” in origin. If we allow ourselves to fall into thinking faith can only be recognized in people “from here” and should only tell us things we already know, we may miss out on experiencing and learning from the kind of faith that catches Jesus’ attention.

Faith of our foreigners

Giving up injustice for Lent

I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. I’ll be posting blog versions here, so check back for parts two and three. 

e2729f76-0acd-4be3-a360-f2d18f07ed09Mardi Gras season, the time of Carnival coinciding with Epiphany, is permanently ingrained in the history of the Gulf Coast. French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville upon landing inside the mouth of the Mississippi River and consulting the calendar named his arrival point Point du Mardi Gras. Soon after nearby Mobile was founded in what would be Alabama and played host in 1703 to the first organized Mardi Gras in the future United States (deal with it, Louisiana!). The very first Mardi Gras parade occurred soon after in 1711, also in Mobile. I’m not sure there was enough Mobile to parade through just yet, but they did it nonetheless. According to tradition, the famous colors of Mardi Gras were selected in 1872 by the Krewe of Rex. After Rex’s 1892 festivities specified the symbolic meanings of purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power as the theme in 1892, the attributions just stuck. This week we’ll be looking at justice.

God has a strong opinion on matters of justice. Justice is at the core of God’s identity and plan for redeeming Creation, yet we neglect it so easily. All of human history, even God’s physical nation,  has struggled with maintaining justice. In Isaiah 58 God confronts a people ready to fast to get what they want but wholly unprepared to reach for what God desires:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

The ancient Greeks gave us the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. The play opens with the assembled priests coming to Oedipus, deeply troubled by the plagues ravaging Thebes. Based on their anxiety they had presumably been doing their jobs as priests to follow worship rituals on behalf of the people and yet were met with a curse. The plagues [spoiler alert!] we later learn were caused by Oedipus’ acts of murder and incest though he was blind to his guilt at the time.  It seems even the ancient Greeks, apart from Yahweh of the Jews, understood the dangers of devotion ruined by injustice, the same concept with which Israel is confronted in Isaiah 58. It is from the Greeks and their plays, after all, from which we receive the word hypocrite, the charge Jesus places on the Pharisees for tithing spices yet forgetting the justice and mercy at the center of the Law.

Mardi Gras and Lent are inextricably linked, as for centuries Christians have reveled in then fasted from pleasure and indulgence in preparation for Easter. Though the fasting in Isaiah 58 isn’t aimed at Easter specifically, similar themes of self-denial and preparation are always present in the spiritual disciplines. So how is that God can talk about denying ourselves injustice as a fast? Injustice is always tied to someone else’s benefit. Often this benefit is something that doesn’t sound so bad. Financial stability. Commodities. Ambition. Comfort. Safety. But when these things come at the cost of someone else, they become idols under which our fellow humans are crushed. The benefits reaped are extra indulgences to deny ourselves in order to follow God more deeply. We have enormous privileges as Westerners. Note that we’re sharing this blog together using a computer or smart device and we’re educated enough to read it. These privileges can be so large as to let us turn away from seeing injustice like avoiding eye contact with a homeless person, but that doesn’t change reality. We, blinded from our own guilt like Israel and Oedipus, can hide in our comforts and empty devotion while wondering why our world burns. Or we can give up injustice for Lent and for always, constantly preparing ourselves for Easter. Only then will our light will break forth like the dawn.

Giving up injustice for Lent