Jesus and Resistance

Jesus and Resistance

Sermon for Aug. 2, 2020, Pentecost 9A

Video can be found here.

Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children

Since the nineteenth century, the British colonialists in India had made local salt production illegal, to force people to buy expensive British salt. Salt is necessary for the diet of people who live in extremely warm climates, like India, so this basic human need was instrumentalized into a basis for oppression. 

So, when Gandhi led a crowd down to the sea to take salt from it, he was conducting an act of resistance.  

When the late John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, took their seats at the front of a Greyhound bus in 1960, they were conducting a risky act of resistance to racism.  

Seemingly insignificant acts, like harvesting salt from the beach, or taking a seat on a bus, are bold acts of resistance when they represent a “no” to the oppressive status quo. 

Jesus’ Resistance

Serving bread and fish to a group of Galilean peasants was also an act of resistance. When most people are sharecroppers or day-laborers, working for the landed aristocracy, indebted to them and dependent on them, providing bread self-sufficiently was as an act of resistance. 

When fish production was taxed, which it recently had been after Tiberius had commercialized the lake, then providing tax-free fish would be seen as an act of resistance. Jesus was getting political.

Are we right to read this story politically? Matthew requires it. The way he tells the story, the setting is a political assassination. Jesus had just learned that his cousin, his mentor, the one who had baptized him and whose group he had been a part of, was rounded up, and killed. John had been publicly critical of the government. 

Matthew tells us that Herod was superstitious enough to wonder if Jesus himself might be John, come back from the dead. So, Jesus was in clear and present danger of ending up like John.  

So, Matthew tells us,

When Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” 

Deserted places are at the margins. They are not worth anything to the elite, but they provide refuge for people who are living at the margins. 

It reminds us of the place the recently freed slaves of the Egyptian empire went that Passover night, long ago.

I want to be clear that I do not believe Matthew is telling a literal story, but a parable. Timing, setting, words, and actions are all given to convey Matthew’s themes as he re-tells the Jesus-story. 

It is important to remember that Matthew (so traditionally named) was living in the Roman empire, not too long after the failed Jewish revolt which ended in the year 70. 

The rebellious Jewish state was crushed by the Romans. So, telling a story with a Jewish hero, especially one with a large following who was talking about a kingdom that was not named Rome, was dangerous. So, Matthew has to be subtle. He is subtle, but also, clear.  

Spirituality and Politics

So, Jesus, in this parable, goes to a deserted place to be safe and alone. For Jesus, it was a chance to pray. Jesus’ whole mission was fueled by his deep spirituality. He was political, in the sense that he was committed to changing the status quo by acts of resistance, but he was not only political. 

His politics were the politics of the Jewish prophets before him who announced God’s will that no one is hungry.  Prophets like Ezekiel imagined a time when justice would be done,

so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land

(Ezk 34:6). 

Hunger is a concern of God’s, so addressing hunger is a spiritual concern. Jesus’ politics were the politics of a compassionate God who cares about human suffering. They were the politics of compassion.

The Crowds and their Hunger

So Jesus is alone, nurturing his spiritual life, but then is found by the crowds. Crowds can be protective shields, as the “Wall of Moms” is trying to be in Portland. John the Baptist himself was protected for a while by the crowds whose numbers made Herod initially hesitant to move against him, as Matthew tells us.  

When Jesus sees the crowd, just like the God of compassion who inspired his ministry,

he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” 

Jesus’ ministry of announcing the presence of the kingdom of God with its alternative values and its description of a God of love, was deeply healing for people — then and now.  

But healing though it was, the people were still literally hungry. And the hour was late. Nighttime brings danger. People get rounded up and arrested at night — that will soon be Jesus’ fate.  Nighttime signals that time is almost up. Things are coming to a head. Action is overdue.  

So, time to do something. Jesus hands the problem back to the disciples. Figure out how to feed them, he tells them. It is not a question of identifying the need: everyone sees the need. And no one is questioning whether the right thing to do is to feed them; of course, it is. “God does not want people to be hungry,” the disciples are thinking, “and we are here, so of course, we should feed them. “

But all the disciples can see is scarcity. Five loaves and two fish. Matthew’s readers do the math; 5 + 2 = 7, and seven is the perfect number, the number of completion, of fullness, of abundance, so perhaps there is an alternative way to look at the situation.  

Scarcity or Abundance?

What can you do with so little? Well, consider: how much money did it take for Gandhi to make salt? How much did it cost for John Lewis to buy that bus ticket? Neither of those men, nor any of the ones who followed their movements were wealthy. And yet, when they used what little they had, they made huge changes. Yes, they put themselves on the line, took risks, faced brutal treatment, and even death, just as Jesus did, but the result was world-changing.  

So Matthew tells us that Jesus,

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled;

Matthew is consciously telling a parable about the Eucharist. Using the four verbs of the Last Supper, “took, blessed (or gave thanks), broke and gave,” and having the disciples, who represent the church, distribute the food, the result is that everyone eats and is satisfied. 

When the church comes together around a common table where everyone is welcomed, and where they intentionally remember Jesus’ life, his ministry, his words, and his actions, we are fed spiritually. 

And when we have remembered Jesus, we are inspired to follow Jesus. We are inspired by his spiritually-inspired compassion to be people of spirituality and compassion. And when compassion meets hunger, it gets political. The politics of compassion are the politics of a kingdom that values every hungry person, regardless of how marginalized they are.  

Our Hunger

 So, what are people in our time and place hungry for?  We were reminded at John Lewis’ funeral that, emulating Gandhi, Lewis insisted on the truth. If you are like me, you find yourself hungry right now for leaders who insist on the truth. 

In the meantime, we citizens must insist on the truth that every single person, black, white, brown, citizen, immigrant, gay, straight, rich, or poor has been created by God, is loved by God, and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  

The hunger in our time is for justice. We must insist on the truth that there has been racial oppression since the very founding of our country.  The truth is that even the documents which proclaim our highest ideals and self-evident truths were written by wealthy slave-owning people, who had no intention of including women, native Americans, and certainly not black people. The truth is that racism is America’s original sin.

We must insist on the truth that the documents written by the Confederate states who seceded from the union proclaimed slavery as their right, again and again, and condemned the concept of the equality of all people. 

Mississippi was probably the clearest, stating

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/declaration-causes-seceding-states

And, complaining in that document, that hostility to the institution of slavery in the North is so strong that it

advocates negro equality, socially and politically.

Imagine, advocating equality!  

There is so much left to be done. It includes, but goes way beyond proper policing. We remain hungry for the bread of justice and equality, and hungry that it be available for everyone.  

There is enough. But the baskets full of bounty are not equally available. Therefore, resistance born out of compassion is necessary. It feels like night time; that time is running out; that something has to change.  

May the right changes come; not the changes like the gutting of the voting rights act; not changes like unlimited dark money in the political system, but changes like salt-making and bus riding. 

Changes like ending cash bail and permanent disenfranchisement after incarceration. 

Changes like an end to political gerrymandering of districts. 

And maybe the biggest change of all, a change from the politics of triumphalism and nostalgia, to the politics of compassion; from hunger and scarcity to satisfaction and abundance.

Who Should Go to Hell?

Who Should Go to Hell?

Sermon for July 19, 2020, Pentecost 7A

Video is here.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 

He [Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Who should go to hell? When we read the parable of the wheat and weeds, or wheat and tares, as it used to be called, we read that on judgment day, the weeds, which stand for evil people, will be gathered up and the angels “will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That “furnace of fire” is what we call hell.

The Jewish Perspective on Hell

So, who are the evil people who should go to hell? First, let’s ask the Jews since the first part of our bible came from them. 

How can we ask them? By looking at the Hebrew Bible. What does it say about hell? Well, that’s problem number one. It says nothing at all about hell. There is no place of punishment after death in the Hebrew Bible. 

So, what happens when you die? There are several ways the Hebrew Bible describes what happens after death. It is called the “dust of death,” or “the grave” — a place you go to join your deceased ancestors in the family tomb (see e.g. Psalm 49). 

Many times it is called Sheol, but that is not a place of punishment; it is just the place of the dead. Death is described as a kind of long term sleep. In the majority of the Hebrew Bible, the view of death was an existence of neither bliss nor suffering. As Job said, 

“so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.”

(Job 14:12)

Interestingly, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the third century before Christ, they translated “Sheol” as “Hades.” People often think that Hades is the same as hell, but it is not. 

For Greek people, Hades, like the Jewish Sheol, was simply the place of the dead, without bliss, and without punishment. Hades actually began as the name of the god, who was given governorship of the underworld where the dead go. Eventually they called the underworld that Hades governed by his name.  

Greek Mythology and the Afterlife

So, where did the idea that there is a place after death in which evil is punished come from? Not Hades, but another place in Greek mythology. It is called Tartarus. 

Tartarus was deep pit on the outskirts of hades, where the Titan god Cronus imprisoned the Cyclops. 

Later, the victorious Olympic gods, like Zeus confined their predecessors, the Titans, including also Cronus to the same place. Tartarus was a place of punishment, but not just for gods. The gods also sorted out the good people’s souls, after death, from the evil ones. Evil people’s souls were sent to the place of torment, while the good people’s souls were spared that fate. 

Did these mythological Greek ideas of what happens after death creep into the worldview of the entire Hellenistic world, including Judea and Galilee? Yes, of course. This is far too complex an issue to unwind here; there are many excellent books on the subject. But because this text from the gospel imagines evil people being gathered up like weeds and thrown into a furnace of fire, we have to talk about it.  

What Do We Believe?

So, I’ve tried to cast a shadow on the whole idea by briefly tracing its origins in Greek mythology, as contrasted with the Hebrew Bible. Now I want to add one more thought problem. Can this idea of a place of torment after death be reconciled with the fundamental theological concepts that our whole faith rests upon? Let’s look at two. 

First, the doctrine of a good creation. We receive from our Hebrew Bible the understanding that the source of everything is God, who created a physical world and repeatedly, according to our Creation myth, pronounced it “good.” 

Can you imagine that on one of the six days of creation, good took a break from creating good things, and turned to create a torture chamber where evil would exist forever, unredeemed, and suffering would be infinite? Is that even conceivable? Not to me.  

Second, the very character of God is called into question by the idea of a place of torment after death. Our bedrock, most elegantly simple and profound concept of the character of God, is Love. The Bible says it that clearly: “God is love.” 

The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of God forgiving the evil deeds of people. It has a lot of smiting, plagues, and violence, but it also has a lot of relenting and redeeming as well. 

And by the time we get to Jesus, we hear a voice calling us to understand God as our Abba, our Good Shepherd, our source of daily bread and of forgiveness.  The idea that a God who created all humans in God’s image would be content to send them to a place of torment seems implausibly sadistic.  

Where, then, is justice?

I must admit that if there is no hell, there is a dangling problem that is left unsolved: what becomes of justice? What happens to evil people, murderers, rapists, child molesters, war lords, and slave traders, to name only the most obvious?  

What becomes of people whose laws and policies oppresses masses of people by the stroke of a pen? The list could go on and on. Where is final justice if the evil doers die peacefully in their beds after a long life?  

This too is a huge topic, but this one thought may help: if we cannot rest on the hope that justice will be done beyond the grave, does not that make the mandate to to justice now all the stronger? 

We must not rest, thinking that the evil done to people will be made right after death. We must work to end oppression, discrimination, unjust laws and systems while we and the people they affect are alive.  

This Text, and Jesus

So, back to the text. We see that the early Christian communities struggled with questions of ultimate justice, and, living in the Hellenized world, they accepted the notion of a “furnace of fire” for the evil ones. 

But that idea, in my opinion, following New Testament scholars, is a belief that practically stands Jesus’ perspective on its head.  Jesus had no time for a doctrine of retribution against the wicked. God’s rain and sun are provided for the wicked and the good, he said. Who sinned that this man was born blind, he was asked? Neither, he answered. 

What is the whole point of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, growing up together in the field? The point is: leave them both alone. The punch line is that the sorting out is not our business. 

In Jesus’ perspective, there were not “evil” people so much as “lost” people that needed to be found by love; people who had left home who needed to be welcomed back with open arms, not punished with torments.  

The Right Questions, the Right Answers

So we started with the question, “Who should go to hell?” First we called into question the whole idea of hell. Then we challenged the idea that we have the right to say who is going there. 

It is hard to tell the weeds from the wheat. Especially if we believe in forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. 

And what kind of followers of Jesus would we be if we did not believe that no one is a hopeless case, no one is a lost cause, no one is unredeemable?  

So, we do no believe in being people of judgment.  But there is a difference between judgment and discernment.  

Evil is real. Evil destroys people. Some people do evil. We are not pollyanna about that.  The call to do justice is also the call to fight injustice. The call to racial harmony is simultaneously a call to dismantle systemic discrimination. 

But our goal is not vengeance. Our motive is not resentment. Our hope is not for angry recrimination but for joyous redemption. 

It was, after all, a slave trader named John Newton, who, after his spiritual awakening, would write the words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.”  

We just had an amazing Third Thursday program by zoom this week, in which we heard the personal stories of five people of color from our community. Most of them told about their first experience being called the N word —  several of them were too young to even know what it meant, but they understood full well that it was a bitter term of derision, and they felt the sting.  

They told us story after story of discrimination: of walking for miles past the white school to go to the two-room school for the black kids, that had to accommodate grades 1-12; of being jeered at by the white kids on the bus taking them to that new school, as they were walking to their clapboard alternative. 

They talked about personal racism, like being the last table served in the restaurant, and structural, systemic racism, like how much collateral was required for a home loan and the unlikeness of getting a business loan. Their stories broke our hearts.  

The power of evil is strong and the suffering it causes is great. But in the mean time, some laws have been changed. We have the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and we have Title IX as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. 

And in the mean time, some people have become awakened to their own implicit biases and have worked to think differently. 

The job of establishing justice and hence fighting the evil of injustice is far from complete. Laws that were passed in one decade can be, and are being undermined in subsequent years, as is happening in our time. 

New forms of discrimination crop up; new walls are built, new restrictions are invented, which require constant vigilance and dedicated action.  

We are called to be engaged in that action, motivated by discernment and love, inspired by the God of love, who longs, not for the judgment, but for the good of all creation.  

The Radical Seed and the Problems it Faces

The Radical Seed and the Problems it Faces

Sermon for July 12, 2020, Pentecost 6A

Video is here.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 

Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 

Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 

As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 

But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Jesus had a vision of a world that was better than the one he was born into. His vision was radical. That means he had to get people to listen to him long enough to hear him out. That was a tall order. 

First off, how do you challenge the whole religious establishment? Even if your vision is liberating, it’s going to be a hard sell. People are still the same today: how often, in your experience, do people change their religious views?  

But think of how radical Jesus’ vision was in his time. When all of religious life was centered around a temple and animal sacrifice, and when religious duty was all about strict adherence to ancient purity laws, how could you expect people to simply give that up? 

Even if a new vision would lift a huge burden from their backs, still, going against tradition was an uphill climb. So, Jesus had a job to get people to listen. Some did, but many did not.  

The radical nature of Jesus’ vision was challenging for other reasons too. How many people are going to be willing to join a movement that keeps speaking of an alternative “kingdom,” as if they thought king Herod’s brutal regime would take kindly to it, especially after what happened to John the Baptist? 

And as if Governor Pilate’s crucifixion-crazy Roman administration enjoyed challenges to its legitimacy? Everyone remembered the thousands killed in the failed uprisings of 4 BCE. 

As if saying “Caesar is Lord” was not the litmus test of loyalty to Rome? How are you going to get people to listen to the talk of a “kingdom”? That was another of Jesus’ challenges. 

So, one of his strategies to get people to listen was to tell parables. Scholars tell us that the versions of the parables we have now are probably condensed, Readers Digest summaries of originally longer stories. 

Anyway, Jesus’ parables were interesting and engaging to people back then. Often they involved absurdities, like a shepherd abandoning a flock of 99 sheep to look for one lost one. Sometimes they included wild exaggerations, like a peasant finding a vast treasure hidden in a field. 

These devices made people pay attention and think, and sometimes laugh. Today, we often miss the point that was obvious back then, so we have to explain to them, which takes all the surprise and fun out of it, like when you have to explain a joke.  

The Surprising Sower

The parable of the sower is one of these. Everyone understands that before the invention of farm machinery, people had to sow seeds by hand, but today, we miss several elements that would make the story interesting back then. 

First, the sower is wildly reckless, scattering seed all over the place as if it were not a precious commodity. Every year, after harvest, some of the seed was set aside for planting in the coming year. But that meant that much less grain available to grind into flour for the family’s daily bread. Peasants didn’t waste seeds. 

The farmer in the parable, however, lavishes the seeds everywhere — on good soil, on the hard path, on rocky ground, and among the weeds. 

Most of the seed is wasted, since it goes to places where no fruit will be produced. 

What would it mean to tell a story of absurdly lavish, indiscriminate sowing, in the context of scarcity?

And there is another layer of reality-bending in this parable. The seed that falls on the good soil produces a harvest of absurdly large proportions.  Scholars tell us that yields of seven to elevenfold would have been considered normal. 

Thirty, sixty, and one hundredfold increase would feel like a garden of Eden-like golden age of productivity. That farmer and his family would almost be set for life with such a bumper crop. 

But let us ask the question: Why tell a story that every farmer present would recognize as fanciful?

Jesus’ Explanation

As Jesus explains it, according to Matthew, the seed is “the word of the kingdom”.  The word of the kingdom is the message Jesus has been trying to get people to hear and to receive. Jesus’ main theme was that there was an alternative kingdom, the kingdom of God. 

This kingdom operated by different values than the kingdoms of Herod, locally, or Caesar, internationally. It was almost the mirror opposite in many respects. 

It was a kingdom in which “the least” were considered the greatest, in which enemies were forgiven, and outsiders were welcomed to the common table.

It was not a physical kingdom, it was not an ethnic kingdom; it had no boundaries, controlled no territory; no swords were needed to defend it. Rather, you heard Jesus say, 

change your thinking (“repent”) because the kingdom of “has come near,” or “is at hand.” 

He taught people to pray,

may your kingdom come.” He said, “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice.

What could it mean, then, that the seed in the parable was the “word” or “message of the kingdom”? It meant that Jesus was the sower — the one spreading the message of the presence of the kingdom. 

Jesus was, then offering the kingdom in God’s name. How was the offer made? As lavishly as you could possibly imagine. The offer went to everyone, even the most unlikely. No one was excluded from getting the seed. That’s how lavish God’s love is. That’s how extravagant the welcome is. 

No one is considered a lost cause. 

And, for those who respond to the message and embrace the alternative values and perspectives of the kingdom, they reap a bounteous crop of liberation, community, and belovedness.  

Reasons Not to Hear It

But, the truth is that most people did not respond. Most people were not to willing to listen. 

For the ones who stopped listening even before they understood it, it was like seed that landed on a hard-packed path; it was food for the birds. Nothing grew in them. 

Other seed fell where it seemed to have a chance, but the soil was shallow. The trouble people got into with the defenders of the status quo, the push-back from the ones with vested interests in maintaining things as they were, was enough to put off those people. They were as fruitful as rocky ground.  

Other people stopped listening because the kingdom’s values were going to have economic consequences, and they knew it, and it was too much for them. The lure of wealth was the thorn that they didn’t see coming until it was too late. By the time they felt the pain of the pricks, the seed had long since died. What good are the coins on a dead man’s eyes? 

The way Jesus asked it was, “what will a person give, in exchange for their soul?” — that was the question in the parable of the rich man who died with full barns. 

So, anyway, there are lots of reasons not to hear, even if the message is packaged in an interesting, humorous parable.  

The Modern Challenge to Us: Listen

So, what does this parable mean for us today? I think it is a challenge — a tough one. I think the challenge is: to what extent am I open to hearing the message of the values of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed? 

This parable asks us, What are the things that make it hard for me to hear the message, and therefore make me fruitless? Let us get specific.  

First the seed on the path: what are the issues about which I have become hard-hearted and will not even hear a conversation about? 

How about the shallow rocky ground: What are the issues about which I have accepted shallow opinions without grounding them in the depth of facts? 

And the thorns of wealth that choke out the values of the kingdom: what are the compromises I have made to protect my bottom line? These are the challenges of this parable.  

Let me bring it home in today’s context. We are in the middle of a movement for justice in our society, the likes of which we have not seen for decades. 

We white people are becoming aware of the depth of the pain, and the justified anger of people who have been literally brutalized by our country’s systems since its founding.  

The challenge for us, for people of faith, for people who identify as followers of Jesus, for people who embrace Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, is to keep listening. 

The challenge is to not be heard-hearted and closed off to hearing things we do not like about our heroes, all of whom were complicated humans with “feet of clay.” 

The challenge is to not accept the shallow, elementary school version of our history, but to face it at an adult depth. The challenge is to look at the lure of wealth as a danger and even an obstacle to justice, as dark money floods and corrupts our political life.  

The Pain of Hearing

I know that such listening is painful; it is for me too. Change is hard for me too. Seeing my own privilege is painful. But let us take a moment to draw back from the details and look at the big picture: what is Christianity if not a faith that embraces and accepts that suffering is part of the package? Jesus himself suffered; why should we think we should be exempt?

But the message of our faith is also that resurrection and new life follow suffering and death. The seed that is “buried” in good, receptive soil, rises out of the ground producing a bumper crop of fruitfulness. The grapes that are crushed become the wine of the kingdom. 

The bountiful harvest of a beloved community, of justice, of spiritual liberation, and of compassionate service is our source of joy and fulfillment. The message of the kingdom really is “good news” for those willing to do the painful job of listening with open hearts. 

Listening takes many forms. We can hear the voices of people of color by reading their books. Right now, Monday Morning Seekers is reading I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. I wish every one of us would read it. She opens the door onto a world of a black woman navigating white spaces in Christian organizations in revealing, but also painful ways. 

Listening can be literal too. This Thursday at our Third Thursday program, which has to be by Zoom, we will be hearing the stories of several black people from our community. It may be painful to hear what they will say to us, but we are people who are committed to letting the seed in, so we will be there to listen.  

And, we are committed to acting on what we learn when we have listened. We will not be content to let the status quo continue to cause suffering in the black community. We will use our white privilege to be allies, advocates, and “accomplices” as Sonna likes to say. 

We will participate in organizations that make a difference. We will show up at meetings of people in power, to show support, and to let our voices, as likely voters, be heard loud and clear. This is a new day in our country, and we are blessed to be on the front lines.  Let the listening begin!

Truth, Action, and Rest

Truth, Action, and Rest

Sermon for July 5, 2020, Pentecost 5A

Video is here

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

[Jesus said:] “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is indicated by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I’m sorry, but I have to start with the bad news: our nation is not at rest. On this Independence Day weekend, we are tense for all kinds of reasons. 

We are in a relentless pandemic; putting on our own masks puts us on edge. People not putting on masks puts us edge even more. We are fearful about our own health and the health of our loved ones. 

Daycares, businesses, and churches around us open up, then someone gets sick and they have to close down again. Our concerns about the Covid-19 virus come on top of our already-existing health issues that make us all the more vulnerable.  

We are also tense about the economy — how long can this last, and how many more businesses will suffer, or even close? How much unemployment can we stand? How many stimulus checks can our nation afford? And what will happen if we do nothing?  

Plus, our nation is upset about other, huge issues: policing, brutality, and the underlying racism that has been a part of our systems since the beginning, when black people were enslaved, and counted as ⅗ of a person. 

For people who are not bigots, which is most of us, for people who want justice to prevail and who want our systems to be fair, it causes great pain to see all the video evidence and to read the official statistics which show that it has not been any of those things for people of color. 

These days we keep getting reminded of the Elaine, Arkansas massacre of 1919 and of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. I have recently learned of the lynching here in Fort Smith of Sanford Lewis in 1912. We hate learning about these things, just as much as we hated to see the video of George Floyd’s murder.   

And we are disturbed about our leaders. Some people are writing tell-all books; other people are trying to squelch them. We are hearing intelligence reports that may — we are not yet sure — indicate Russian bounty money paid to kill American troops in Afghanistan. 

Climate change is still happening, poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, and addictions continue. And, this is a presidential election year — we have more reasons not to be at rest than we can count.  

Upset and Motivation

So, what do we do? The worst possible thing we could do is look for some quick-fix, feel-good, pseudo-solution for all of this unrest.  

Nevertheless, simply being upset does not help anything, unless it produces some kind of motivation to act in a purposeful, productive way.  

I guess that is what I want most of all for myself, and, I’m hoping is what we all want, is not a way to make the bad feelings magically vanish, but rather a way to let those feelings, that are upset with reason, become the motivation to do things that lead to change. 

It is right to be upset about injustice and climate change, but being upset does not produce justice nor a cooler planet. If being upset, however, becomes motivation to thoughtful, constructive action, then it has played its part. 

I have read that anger is not helpful in a physical fight. They say, for example, in martial arts, the cooler your own head is, the more able you will be to overcome your opponent. I don’t have any personal experience with this, but it makes sense. 

I believe the same thing is true for us, when it comes to engagement in issues that matter. Being upset about injustice and climate change is right, but only as an initial reaction. If our anger does not give way to positive motivation, then it is simply a useless emotion. But how can you go from upset to constructively and positively engaged?  

Learning from Change Agent Jesus

That, I believe, is the challenge before us. And that is, I believe, what change agents, like Jesus, were able to do. I believe that Jesus, and some noteworthy change agents who said they studied him and learned from him, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. were effective because they did not work from motives of anger, resentment, or vengeance, but from a deep, inner equanimity, a sense of peaceful courage, that enabled them to work toward their objectives.  

Today we too will try to learn from Jesus. We will look briefly at this text from our wisdom tradition, the Gospel of Matthew, for some insight. It begins with Jesus’ honest assessment about his moment in time. Jesus acknowledged that were people who just didn’t get what was happening. 

He quotes a little rhyme: we played the flute (like for a wedding) but they didn’t dance. We wailed, as they did at funerals, but the people didn’t morn.

Then he draws the lesson: John the Baptist, came calling people to repent – to change their thinking – but they mocked his ascetic lifestyle as insane — they used the term “demonic” back then. Jesus came, eating at open, inclusive tables with notorious “sinners” as they were called, and they criticized him for drinking.  

But, he said, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Talk is cheap. You can shout “conspiracy” and demand your personal rights not to wear a mask, but the virus will get you anyway, ask Herbert Cain. 

You can turn off the TV news, but eventually, the anger of brutalized people will show up by the thousands in the streets.  

The global temperature keeps rising no matter how much you talk down solutions as job-killers. Denial is not wisdom. Wisdom’s currency is reality.  

Moving Beyond Denial and Anger

So, yes, there are people who don’t get it; who refuse to get it. But others want to get it. Some people feel the anger, but want to move beyond it to positive action for change.  It is to those people, like Gandhi and Martin to whom Jesus addresses this next teaching.  

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Come to me,” Jesus says, in other words, all of you who are upset, who are angry, who are frustrated by what is going on, and by what has been going on for so long, and by the denial that so many live in. 

Come to me with all the burdens on your back that this life, this culture, this moment in our nation’s history, and your personal history have laid on you.

There is another way to handle it than merely collapsing under its weight. Jesus is suggesting that he knows a way to live, even with everything that is going on, which he describes as “rest” and as “rest for your souls” or “psyches” or we might say, inner calm. It is what Buddhists call equanimity; peace.

This is not denial nor escape. So where does this equanimity come from? The key is the line that follows.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”

The yoke is about learning. In other words, take on the weight of an educational program, instead of the weight of the world. 

There was a saying, from a book of wisdom instruction back then called Sirach, that had said, “Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction…see…that I have labored little and found for myself much rest.”  The keywords “yoke, labor and rest” appear both in Sirach’s saying and here in Matthew. (Sir 51:26-27). It may be a coincidence, but it sounds almost as if Jesus is paraphrasing it. The yoke of learning, the yoke of instruction is taken on willingly by someone who is teachable and willing to learn.  

But what good is there in exchanging one burden for another; the weight of the world for the yoke of instruction? The yoke of instruction is different from the weight of the world. Jesus says, 

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

How so? In another place he said, 

“you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

(John 8:32) 

The Lightness of Truth

The rest that Jesus is offering for our souls, our inner being, is found in engaging a program of learning to face the truth as it is, and then following the path Jesus laid out for us. 

Jesus was constantly showing us a life lived without pretense or denial. He walked up to lepers and touched them. He saw that people were hungry and it moved him to action. He encountered blind people, lame people, suffering women, and foreigner’s slaves with compassion. He welcomed outcasts and “sinners” to his table to illustrate the welcome God extends to all of us.  

Clearly, this lifestyle was not motivated by anger or resentment, but by compassion.  Compassion comes from a heart that is not under the domination of ego, of self-interest, or tribal loyalty. 

But no one can simply will themselves into freedom from ego’s selfishness. It does not work that way. It takes days and days of “doing the work.” 

When Jesus says, “Come to me…learn from me” he is inviting us to learn, not just by reading about his compassion, but by regular spiritual practices that produce that result. 

When Jesus says, “Come to me…learn from me” he is inviting us to imitate his practice of meditation. 

When Jesus says, “Come to me…learn from me” he is inviting us to pray the prayer he taught — about forgiveness of debts and about God’s will being done for its own sake, regardless of whether it increases our personal wealth or comfort.  

And if we embrace the yoke of this kind of learning, we realize how light it is. We become aware of how freeing it feels to forgive someone instead of holding on to the ball and chain of bitterness.  We find out how freeing it is not to have to defend ourselves, but to admit our own failings. 

We experience the freedom of not needing to be right all the time, or having the last word, or getting our own way, or being from the best family, nation, or race. All of those anchors can fall away, setting us free to enjoy each other, in all our differences, like the mosaic’s many different tiles create a beautiful scene. 

That is equanimity. That is rest for our souls. That could be the hope for our country, but it may turn out to be the narrow way that few choose. 

Some people, maybe even most people, will not get it. They will neither join the dance nor sing the dirge when it is called for. They may never come, take up the yoke and start learning the Jesus way.  Nevertheless, it is the right way.  Therein lies rest.

Agents, Not Assistants

Agents, Not Assistants

Sermon for June 28, 2020, Pentecost 4A

Video can be found at the YouTube channel of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR.

Matthew 10:40-42

[Jesus said:] “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

I used to think that the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” Was the one that would get to the deepest level of personal values. 

For example, I might answer that I would die for my children. I thought that question would get to what theologian Paul Tillich called your “ultimate concern.” 

But I do not think so anymore. With the death toll from the global pandemic, that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts will reach up to 150,000 Americans by July 18, l see that people are willing to take great risks for the sake of things of no greater value than an ice cream cone. 

Recently I had to wait in line for a heartworm test for my dog. I was wearing a mask, but the person behind me, way too close behind me, was not. Thankfully, we were outside. 

Neither was the vegetable-seller at the farmer’s market masked.

Better Questions

So, if asking what people are willing to die for does not get to deep values, perhaps another question might: “What would you be willing to live for?” What would you be willing to spend each of your irreplaceable days on, as your life goes by?  

I think our answer has a lot to do with how we perceive ourselves. Maybe the question, “What would I be willing to live for?” depends on the answer to the question, “Who am I, in this world?” 

What are the options?  If I am a “consumer” as we are constantly being called, then I guess my role in life is to consume. I indeed do a lot of consuming: food, electricity, entertainment and so much else. But the idea that being a consumer defines me seems to be about as empty a life as I could imagine. 

If I am a solitary individual then maybe self-fulfillment should be my quest. But I’ve never heard anyone being eulogized at their funeral as a brilliantly self-fulfilled person. 

I believe we must have something bigger than ourselves to live for; something greater than our own personal good.  

It’s Only Me

But here we come up against a dilemma. I’m just one person. I’m not a powerful person. I’m neither rich, like Bill Gates with a Foundation behind me, nor an Elon Musk that can build rockets and electric cars. What can I possibly do that would make a difference?  

This is where this text from our scriptural wisdom tradition, the gospel of Matthew is so powerful. The key is the cup of water. Jesus, according to Matthew’s version, says, 

“whoever gives even a cup of cold water…will [not] lose their reward.”

Do you want to win the prize of a life that had meaning? Do you want to do something significant with your irreplaceable minutes? Think about a cup of water; not a stream, not even a full pitcher, just a cup. I want us to think about this briefly.

First, why only a cup? Because it is precisely small enough to be something that everyone can do. It does not cost much. It is not a cup of wine, nor even soup; just water. 

But offering that single cup is powerful because it answers two other questions that go to the root of who we are and what we are doing in the world. They are the questions, “Who needs that?”, and “Who does that?”

Who Needs That?

First let’s ask the question: who needs a cup of water? Originally, these words were penned in Palestine. It’s arid. Modern irrigation has made much of it farmable, but in those days, grazable was about as good as it got in most places. 

But everyone knew that back in Jesus’ day, so no one would set out to walk or to work without a skin of water. 

And there were wells. You could ask permission to draw water at a strangers’ well, and expect to be given permission. Unless there was a reason not to give you that permission.  

So who needs a cup of water? Maybe it is someone who is desperately thirsty, has run out of their own supply, and has been refused permission at the wells. Maybe he is a foreigner. Maybe his ancestors had blood on their hands. Maybe his people refused water, or safe passage, or some other needed benefit to your people long ago, and now, the shoe is on the other foot. 

Or maybe just being foreign is enough to be refused the well water. Tribal animosity often needs no rational justification. 

Who needs a cup of water from your hand? Someone who has been denied it from the hands of others. Maybe nobody in your tribe is willing to extend help. So, should you break ranks and hold out the cup? Would that be a risk to you among your people?  

Who Does That?

So, who would do that? Who would offer the cup? Someone who knew themselves as a person of compassion. 

The person who would offer that cup of water would do it because human suffering meant something to them, and they could not turn away. 

The person who would make that offer would be the kind of person for whom doing the right thing, the merciful thing, the good thing was more important than merely getting along within the tribe. 

The one offering the cup would be the one who knew that they were only one person, but that they could make a substantial difference to one other person. 

In other words, they would be functioning as agents of God’s work of healing the world, “Tikkun Olam.”  

Barbara Brown Taylor has said it best: we are not here to be God’s assistants, we are here to be God’s agents. We are the means by which God gets things done in the world. 

We are the agents who get compassion done, who get mercy done, who get forgiveness and reconciliation done, and who get justice done. To know ourselves as God’s agents, to own that identity gives us the answer to the question: what are we living for?  

Who would do that, part 2

But I would like to suggest we think even further about the question, who would do that — offer that cup of water? Because, some people are not in a position to offer water. Some people are so desperately thirsty themselves that they have no cup of water to spare. 

If you are dying of thirst, you are not in a position to hand out water. To be able to bear the cup of water to the world, we have to be people who have learned where to find the well, and how to get to the water in it. 

We must be the kind of people who have quenched our own thirst. To try to do the work of compassion, mercy, or justice from a thirsty soul is what leads to anger, resentment, and eventually even to violence.  

But for those who know where to find the water the soul needs, who have learned not only where the well is, but how to get to the water out, for those who have adopted the regular practices that quench the thirst, the work of offering others that cup is a joy. 

So, we are people of both “contemplation and action,” as Richard Rohr likes to say. We are people who take long, deep, quenching drinks from the river of life often enough that when the need shows up, we are ready, willing, and able to meet it.  

We are each only one person, but we are agents of the Kingdom of God; in fact, agents of God, to a thirsty world.

BLM

In these days of national turmoil, we are becoming acutely aware of a particular kind of thirst; the thirst for racial justice. 

We have become newly aware of the depth and breadth of the suffering racism has caused in our country for so many years. 

We keep hearing story after story of people who have known nothing but fear from the authorities. 

I just re-watched Spike Lee’s movie “Do The Right Thing” which was filmed thirty years ago. It is uncannily prescient. Nothing substantial has changed. It is hard to find anyone in that film who does the right thing. No one is offering a cup of water. In fact, everyone in the film seems desperately thirsty. No one has been to the well, so no one has even a cup to offer.  

Who needs a cup of water today? Those who have been shut away from it. I believe we need to look no further than the people of color in our society that have been systematically excluded from the wells that we enjoy.  

Structural Racism, Not Personal Bigotry

But there is a huge danger I have become aware of as we consider the problem of racism in America. The conversation that many of us white people want to have is a conversation about personal bigotry. 

We are not personally bigoted. We would never personally exclude black people from any of our privileges. We are happy to swim with them, bank with them, work with them, cheer the team with them — we have no personal ill will.  

That is great, but that is not the question. The question is, why do so many of them still feel terror at the idea of being pulled over for a traffic violation? 

Why are they followed by policemen on the road — I personally have heard that story more than once. 

Why are their incarceration rates so disproportionately high, and their conviction rates so disproportionately high, and their sentences so disproportionately long? And, why is getting killed by the police the sixth leading cause of death for black males? Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. (source: https://news.umich.edu/police-sixth-leading-cause-of-death-for-young-black-men/). 

This is not about personal bigotry, this is about a system that has allowed this, hidden it, excused it, and covered it up, until the ubiquity of cell phone videos has made it undeniable. 

The cup of water has been knocked out of the hands of the thirsty for years, and now it is on us to change it. We will change it, not just by our personal efforts at reconciliation, but by our determined involvement in actions that make a difference.  

One by one, we will cast our votes. One by one we will show up at meetings where these issues are addressed. One by one we will show up, and speak up, at meetings of the city government, and at public events, at PACE, (Police and Community Engagement, Fort Smith, AR). 

One by one, we will sign petitions, make phone calls, and act like the people we are: agents of God, bearers of the one cup of water we possess, in a country thirsty for the justice we believe God wills for everyone.

The Conflict We Accept

The Conflict We Accept

Sermon for June 21, 2020 Pentecost 3A

Video is here

Matthew 10:24-39 

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It is uncanny again, as it often seems to be, that our lectionary text readings that were selected years ago, are so relevant to this moment in history. We are in a time of serious conflict. The text came from a time of conflict, and its subject is conflict. We will look at the text, and then see how it addresses us again today.

The text we read, from Matthew, is odd, in fact, painful to read, even upsetting. Jesus talks about breaking up families, bringing swords, and calling us to denial and crosses. I think this upsetting text is meant as a wake-up call.  

More than a Greeting Card

Of course, there is exaggeration for effect here, but there is also a reason to use it. The issues are serious. I think that Richard Swanson got it right, saying: 

Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card.” 

He argues that the text is meant to provoke us.  

Why would Jesus say such things? Let’s put this in context. The context is Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom, and sending out his disciples to conduct the mission of kingdom-announcement in his name. His entire mission is compassion-based.  

At the start of it, Jesus noticed that the people were suffering, he said, like “sheep without a shepherd.” His mission and the mission he sends the disciples on is a response of compassion. 

But the sheep metaphor is political. The Hebrew Bible often refers to the political leaders as shepherds and the people as sheep. It is often critical of the bad shepherds who harm the sheep. 

So, a message of compassion addressed to “sheep without a shepherd” is a message to people suffering from bad political leadership. And, it is a text about conflict. 

The Trouble with Jesus

Jesus is not embarrassed about the fact that the call of the kingdom will make trouble. It always has made trouble, where the kingdom has been taken seriously, and it always will, even in families. 

It is not accidental that the different generations of a family end up on different sides in Jesus’ hypothetical scenario:

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
  and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

The two generations in the family see things differently. Why? We are not told. Often times, in my experience, the older generations are less willing to demand change than the younger. 

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Jesus acknowledges that there may be conflict, and that he has caused it by his message of the kingdom of God in the context of current politics.  

Some people, in my experience, think that the goal of being a Christian follower of Jesus is to make a person polite and well mannered. 

That is a gross misreading, in my opinion. Jesus was intentionally confrontational — just think of how he chose the Sabbath day so often, on which to heal, knowing the trouble it would cause. He was non-violent, but nevertheless, confrontational. And he accepted the trouble it caused. 

The last public action he took, we must remember, was organizing a march to the temple — the symbol of the center of the system — which he led on a mocking donkey, and shutting down that temple, at least temporarily. 

Jesus was not Miss Manners. He was non-violent, but he was not passive. Abuse and injustice had to be confronted, even at great risk.

We have experienced the trouble that seeking justice can cause in our country. Families were split apart during the Civil War over the issue of the abolition of slavery. Families were split in the Civil Rights movement too. Seeking the kingdom of God and its justice does not come without costs.  

Try to stand with minority or oppressed communities today and watch what happens. Jesus, in Matthew’s telling of it, makes the point that his followers who take the Kingdom seriously should not expect to fare any better than their master, Jesus himself did. 

He said, “A disciple is not above the teacher” There was a lot of blood on the floor before it was over. Standing with the little people against the powers of empire entails the possibility of becoming a victim of the use of deadly force: crucifixions, in those days. There is nothing greeting-card-ish about it.  

The Racism Conversation

These days, as we are yet again having the conversation about racism, I believe we need to consider what it is we are talking about. Where is the conflict? Who are the parties to the conflict that we are willing to have for the sake of justice? 

Are they the Derek Chauvin’s of this world, the lone bad actors with their knees on the necks of unarmed black men? Or the 3 others who assisted in the murder? Or is the problem in our country bigger than that?

Principalities and Powers

At the funeral of George Floyd, Rev. Al Sharpton dipped into biblical language that we do not hear much, at least in our context. He used the language from Ephesians 6, the language of “principalities and powers,” and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” These, the author of Ephesians says, are what we struggle against, not “flesh and blood.” 

Most of us here, including me, do not share the same worldview as that author. We do not believe in spiritual demonic forces behind the events of the world. But there is a serious point here that Rev. Sharpton was making. Civil Rights is not about this or that “flesh and blood” individual, but rather about unseen systems.  

It is about the social systems we grow up in — segregated white suburbia or urban ghetto. It is about the educational systems that we are the products of; well funded or totally broken. 

It is about the systems of justice, as we call them, that disproportionately arrest, convict, and sentence black bodies, splitting up families, leaving children to be raised without two parents, without two incomes, and without any reason to believe they have a future with hope in this country. 

It is about the bail system that lets people with money go home, but keeps incarcerated poor people — and remember, this is before they have been found guilty of anything.

It is about the kind of system that Amy Cooper grew up in and understood full well. She knew, that when a black man who was bird watching asked her to leash her dog, which offended her, that she could threaten him with a 911 call, pretend to be under threat of a black man, and that the full weight of the law and the courts would come crashing down on him and leave her to get on with her life. 

The only thing that made that horrible scenario not go her way was his calm, disciplined, videoing of her phone rant. What videos are revealing about interactions between blacks and whites horrifies us all. 

But remember, Amy Cooper believed the system would back her up and condemn that man — and she had reasons to believe it. 

The topic of civil rights is about the systems of protection built around law enforcement, including especially police unions, systems which are so strong and secretive that police feel free to do everything we have been watching them do these past weeks. 

It is not just one bad apple here or there that puts a chokehold on a man until he dies. It is not just a random bad cop that drives his cruiser into the crowd of protestors. 

It is not just a single racist that marches up to an unarmed protestor, pulls down his mask, and shoots pepper spray into his face at point-blank range. 

It is not just an unhinged individual who knocks a man off his bicycle and then repeatedly pummels him. 

I have been horrified by watching all of these events this past week, as have we all. But none of these men is working in isolation. They are both the products of the systems that employ and protect them, and they are the system in action. 

As they teach in business school,

your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.

The Promise of a Meaningful Life

Our invisible systems are producing the results that we are getting. So, let us get back to Matthew: there is a real conflict going on, and we must accept that there may be trouble before it is solved. 

So what is the implication here? It the message here just to grin and bear it? Is it to have a kind of Stoic, teeth-gritting endurance until it’s over? Not at all. 

There is a beautiful promise included in this teaching about conflict that upholds us as we take on the unjust systems. The promise is that it is just exactly this kind of struggle that leads to a meaningful life.  

Jesus said, 

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 

This is a deep teaching, so what I am going to say about it will barely scratch the surface. But if we read this teaching in context, in a text that is all about conflict, it must at least mean that engaging the conflict, instead of avoiding it, is how you “save your life.”  

I heard an overly-rhymey poem that makes sense here:

“Some folks die in battle,
some folks die in flames,
Others die by inches
Playing silly games.

I don’t want to die playing games. That, to me, would be what it means to lose life. To find life, to find meaning, is to engage the purpose we were created for: to answer the call of the kingdom, to work for justice, to be informed allies in a world that is not going to make that easy. 

To find life is to know that our lives can make a huge difference for other people’s lives: people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor, and the list that is so, so long. It does not have to be this way. 

But the systems we have in place, are perfectly designed to produce this result we keep getting. Let us be people of the kingdom of the God who calls us to

stand with those on the edge, and choose to live, by the Spirit, for God’s new community of hope.”

Iona Community, Scotland

God and Bodies

God and Bodies

Sermon for June 7, 2020 Trinity Sunday, Year A

Audio will be here for several weeks. Video is at the YouTube channel of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR.

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

During this pandemic, I have been posting a video Thought for the Day, often reading a poem by Mary Oliver. Here is part of one that I believe is perfect for this day, Trinity Sunday. It is from a poem called Bone. 

Mary describes a walk on the beach in which she finds a piece of whalebone. The whale may have lived many years ago, and now all that remains is this bone.

 Thinking about what remains after life led her to consider the soul; what it is, and where it is.

 So, she looks out at the sea, reflecting on what we can know and what we cannot know with certainty about such things.

“Beside me the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors, 
unfolding over and over its time-ridiculing roar; 
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare; 
yet don’t we all know, 
the golden sand is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts—
certainties—
and what the soul is, also I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing, but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
softly, through the pale-pink morning light.

Oliver, Mary. “Why I Wake Early”. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. 

Knowledge, Certainty, and Experience

What do we know with certainty? We “play at the edges of knowing” so many important things. 

What is love? 

Where does courage come from?

 And of course, what is God like?

I agree with Mary. Our part is not to know, but to look, touching, with the heart’s fingers, and loving. 

We know best what we learn from our experience. We know something about what love is because we have been loved, and we have loved. We know something about what courage is because there have been moments in which we have needed to act courageously, and we did.  

Experiencing God

We know something about what God is like, because we experience God in beauty, in wonder, and awe at the vastness and complexity of creation. We go out of our way to visit places of vast beauty just to experience it again and again. 

That is what took me again recently to Mount Magazine to see again the view from the cliffs, overlooking the valley below and the green that stretched to the horizon. 

The idea that God is the Source of the vastness behind the very Being of the universe is common to many religious traditions; ours is not unique here. 

Sometimes we experience God as a spiritual presence. There are the trees we are standing under, but sometimes we are aware that more than trees are present. We close our eyes in meditation and sometimes feel that we are not just breathing oxygen in and out, but more than that; something is with us that feels like a Presence, beyond the material. 

We get stirred deeply by music, in a way that goes beyond the melody and harmonies. We read a poem that arouses us, or we see a piece of artwork or architecture that speaks to us, and we know that something spiritual is going on. 

Experiencing God as Spirit is not unique to our tradition either.  

The Christian Contribution: Incarnation

So, the unique contribution that Christianity brings to the conversation about God is not that God is Creator, nor that God is Spirit. Those two parts of the Trinity are widely affirmed. Many traditions can speak of God as Source, or traditionally, “Father,” and God as “Spirit.” 

The Christian contribution is the idea of incarnation; that God would take on human flesh. 

This idea is powerful in ways that matter, even to this very moment of pandemic and protest. We will look at how it matters in a minute. 

But first, how did we get here? There are several ways, but we have time only to explore one of them on this Trinity Sunday. Remember, we started with a poem about what we can know, which led us to consider the role of personal experience in our knowing.

About Jesus 

Let us start with this: When Jesus walked the earth, people around him experienced the presence of God. They were drawn to Jesus, even though he was completely unauthorized — he was not a priest, nor even from a priestly family. He did not consider or call himself a prophet. 

Nevertheless, people came to him. They came to listen to him teach about God. He taught with the confidence of someone with personal experience of God. They brought their children to him to be blessed. They experienced healing from him. 

They felt included and accepted by him, even experienced forgiveness as he told them of God’s forgiveness, regardless of their past mistakes. 

So, in Jesus’ presence, people experienced the presence of the Divine: of God.  

After Jesus’ days on earth, communities of his followers continued to feel that he was present among them. In fact, he had said that they would. He told them that “where two or three gathered” in his name, he would be there. 

Jesus said, according to the text we read, that he would be present to his disciples even “to the end of the age.” So, communities of Jesus’ followers tried to understand all of these experiences and concluded that Jesus was a manifestation of God. 

Eventually, after a lot of philosophical processing, they came to think of Jesus as God’s son, and eventually as equal to God, the Source, or Father/Mother, and God the Spirit, so the doctrine of the Trinity emerged. 

Not everyone agreed, in fact in those early years, many people did not. But the doctrine of the Trinity has become the teaching of the church. People experienced God as Source, or Father/Mother, as Spirit, and finally as Son.  

Greek and Roman Theater Masks

Anyway, in those days, they spoke of the three “persons” of the Trinity. But they did not mean three individuals as we do when we use the word “person.” Rather, they used the word “person” that came from Greek and Roman theater. Actors wore masks in those days, to represent different characters. The word for “mask” is the source of our word “person.” 

The masks were not to conceal, but to show the character that the actors were playing. So, we could talk about the Trinity as the three persons, meaning the three masks of God, or the three Characters in whom we experience God. 

God is One, but we experience God as Source, as Spirit, and we see, in the character of Jesus, the character of God: loving, compassionate, spiritual, and passionate for justice.  

God and Matter 

This is where the Christian concept of incarnation becomes important. Thinking of God in the character of a human leads us to think deeply about God’s relationship with the material world. 

If we can tell stories about God inhabiting a human, then humans matter to God. Human bodies matter to God. In fact, we can go further. The Christian understanding is that we are all children of God. The Spirit inhabits all of us. Each of us, Paul wrote, is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

From our Jewish roots, we already understood that God, who created this physical world, and called it “good,” created humans in their bodies, and called them “good.” The creation story even says that we humans, in our bodies, are reflections of the very “image of God.” 

So bodies matter to God. It matters how bodies are treated. In the creation story, all humankind descended from one pair. Adam, whose name comes from the word for ground, and Eve, whose name comes from the word for life, are the father and mother of all of us, so in that sense, we are invited to think of ourselves all one human family.

The great, controlling story of the Hebrew Bible, the exodus from slavery in Egypt, is a story about God’s concern for the human bodies of enslaved people. God’s will was their liberation because slavery is inhuman. 

All of these stories about bodies culminate in the story of Jesus as an incarnation of God. God takes on a human body. 

In that body, God suffers as humans suffer. God knows hunger and fatigue, sorrow, and pain, even the pain of torture and death.  

Truth-telling Stories

We do not have to take any of these stories literally to take them seriously. They express deep truths. Our physical bodies matter to God. So what we do with, and for, and to our bodies and the bodies of others matters to God. 

Humans do not live in isolation. We literally breathe each other’s air. We inhabit societies and live embedded in systems. How bodies are treated is not merely a personal matter, it is a public matter. 

Systems, just as individuals, can mistreat bodies, and have done so, and are doing so. So, social systems and their treatment of bodies matter to God. This is why slavery was and is intolerable. This is why torture is such a scandal. This is why brutality is so wrong. This is why Jesus eschewed violence, preferring to die, rather than to kill.  

This is why it is so important that institutions, like the police, and systems, like the criminal justice system, protect the inherent dignity and sacredness of every human body they encounter. 

That is why what happened to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and all the other victims who proceeded them is such an outrage. But it is not unique. In fact, the opposite. 

Racism is part of our society; the statistics are everywhere available that demonstrate it; statistics about incarceration rates, lengths of sentences, discrimination in housing, education, healthcare and so much more. 

This is not an opinion question. In fact, it is America’s original sin, beginning with Christopher Columbus’ genocide of the Taíno. 

Brutality and intimidation against the bodies of people of color have become endemic, and the anger is now boiling over.  

This Historic Moment

Of course, rioting is wrong. Of course, looting and vandalism are wrong. But that should not distract us from the issue that makes this moment historic. It is time for change. 

We, who tell the story of a God who inhabits human flesh, must take the lead in demanding real systemic change. 

But we will do so in ways that are consistent with these same values. 

We will be peaceful, though not passive. 

We will be non-violent, but not uninvolved. 

We will be respectful and show love, even if people consider us enemies in the process.  

On this Trinity Sunday, we began with the question of how we know what is true. We have highlighted the role of personal experience as a key to knowing, though admitting that experience does not provide certainty. 

We have noted that the experience of God as Source, or Father/Mother, and as Presence, or Spirit, is nearly universal. The Christian contribution to the subject is to suggest that in Jesus, we experienced a person who was an incarnation of God, meaning God inhabiting a body. 

This led us to consider God’s relationship with the material world and specifically with human bodies. We do not claim to have certainty, but we have enough personal experience to lead us to believe that God, the Creator, the present Spirit, and the one we see in the character of Jesus leads us to “stand with those on the edge” with courage and hope. As the Iona affirmation says, “We believe in a with-us God who sits down in our midst and shares our humanity.”  

The Way of the Spirit: An Alternative

The Way of the Spirit: An Alternative

Sermon for May 31, 2020. Pentecost A

Audio will be here for several weeks.

Video is at the YouTube Channel of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I’m reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. She is an amazing writer; the book is worthy of the awards it has won. It is about the ancient Greek hero Achilles, who distinguished himself as the greatest of the Greek warriors at the battle of Troy, as originally told in the Iliad of Homer. 

It is also about his partner Patroclus. Patroclus is nearly opposite Achilles in every way. Not only is Patroclus not a hero, but he also is not even competent enough to be a regular foot soldier. In fact, he hates war and killing, the very things that, he acknowledges, Achilles was born for.  

In the character of Patroclus with his peace-loving values, we see Miller’s values. She tells a story of a time when Greek heroes were born to be expert killing machines, but is also horrified by the violence itself. 

Those are not Ancient Greek values, those are Christian values. Miller may or may not consider herself a Christian — I have no idea — but her perspective on violence did not come from Homer, nor the Stoics; it came from a Christian world view. 

It was Jesus who said,

turn the other cheek,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

Not that the world, even the mostly Christian Western world has paid much attention to those values. We tend to pay lip-service to them, it seems to me, when we hear them in church, then we afterward, we walk out into the sunshine and return to “realism,” as we think of it.  

Maybe that is how it is possible to live in a culture in which most people believe in God, the majority would identify as Christian, but very few question the use of violence. As long as the violence is directed against those who “deserve it,” it is justified.

Communal Violence

In The Song of Achilles, Odysseus tells Achilles a prophecy: Achilles will kill the Trojan hero Hector. Achilles asks why, since he has nothing against Hector. 

Odysseus replies that if men only killed those they had a personal antipathy for, there would be no war.  

It is not personal animosity that drives large scale violence, it is group animosity. It is tribal.  It is the collective “us” against the collective “them.” 

One group finds another group to scapegoat for all their problems. 

Jews, for many years, and even still today are scapegoat targets. The great migrations of Muslims to Europe over the past 5 years has set off large scale white-supremacist reactions, including violence both in Europe and New Zealand. Communal violence is an ancient story for humans.  

So, there did not have to be any personal hatred that led to the death of George Floyd. He was just a black person.  

When the white officers (now we know there were three kneeling on him) pinned him to the ground with a knee pressing into his neck, cutting off his air supply, it was not a personal assault. 

Floyd had apparently not provoked the officer. He was not even suspected of doing anything violent. He was just black.  And for that, he was killed. Just like Ahmaud Arbery, guilty for jogging while black in Georgia in May.  And we know that the list is long.  

There Is An Alternative

It does not have to be that way. There is an alternative way of looking at the world and at every group of people in it. We do not have to see each other as enemies. This may be the minority view, but we are here to uphold it and to proclaim it.  

This is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day we celebrate the Spirit of God, who not only pervades the universe, but who also awakens us to a completely different view of humanity.  

In the Gospel of John, which we just read, on Easter evening, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This story teaches that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.  The immediate effect of the Spirit is the capacity to forgive, instead of scapegoating. Jesus said, 

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

We have the spiritual capacity to stop the cycle of violence, to not return evil for evil, but to forgive. 

Another way of telling the story of the Spirit is the way Luke does in his second volume, the book of Acts. In that story, after Jesus’ departure, the disciples are all gathered together in prayer, when the Holy Spirit came on them in the form of flames of fire. 

The immediate result was that they started proclaiming the good news of Jesus in foreign languages so that the international crowd who had come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival all heard the word in their own language.  

If that story means anything it means an end to the way of looking at the world and its different peoples as enemies. It means that distinctions that normally group people into “us” and “them,” like language, no longer apply. 

We no longer have to look at each other with mutual suspicion or hostility. That is what the Spirit does: build bridges of understanding between people. Tribalism can be a thing of the past. Scapegoating can come to an end. 

There is no basis for discrimination, racism, or any kind of xenophobia. White supremacy should be inconceivable wherever the truly Christian story is told.  

The Truly Christian Story

I believe that the Christian story, if told correctly is the alternative. I believe, however, that the Christian story is frequently told in an incorrect way. This mis-telling of the story makes God violent, Jesus’ words irrelevant, and has been hijacked by completely anti-christian world views. 

In the incorrect story, Jesus came down from heaven to be born of a virgin for one purpose: to die on the cross so that an angry God could have the blood sacrifice he required in order to satisfy the claims of justice and therefore forgive us for our sins.  

In that telling of the story, Jesus’ divinity and death are what matters, not his life of compassion, not his teaching  about turning the other cheek, blessed are the peacemakers, and certainly not his hallmark emphasis on forgiving.  

But there is a correct way of reading the Jesus story that, if believed and followed, could transform the world. It is the version of the story that the gospels tell, if we would only let them speak for themselves. 

In this telling of the story, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God as something already present, already within us, a treasure of inestimable value, a pearl of great price. Its value is that it has the capacity to transform the world of violence, vengeance, and scapegoating into a world of mutuality and reconciliation. 

The scene we are often given in the gospels is of Jesus sitting at a table, either as guest or as host, with a mixed crowd of people, accepting them as they are, loving them in spite of their pasts, and affirming them all as children of God, as beloved by God. 

That behavior scandalizes those who do not accept his vision of humanity, but for those who do, liberation happens. The “dividing walls of hostility” as Paul calls them come down. In Christ, he will write, there does not have to be any Jew nor Greek. We are one in the Spirit. 

Paul’s metaphors tumble out as he tries to express this transformed way of being human. We, he says, are a building built with different stones; a body comprised of different members, each contributing uniquely and beautifully. We are a family of God; sisters and brothers to each other, gathered from East and West, North and South.  

That is, I believe, the truly Christian story. That is what we must assert as strongly as we can in these days of deep division. That is what we proclaim in the light of the senseless tragic death of George Floyd and all the others that preceded him. There is an alternative to violence and racism. It is the way of the Spirit of Christ.

Mysticism and Unity

Mysticism and Unity

Sermon for May 24, 2020, Easter 7A

Audio will be here for several weeks. Video is at the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR YouTube channel

John 17:1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In our Monday Morning Seekers class we have been recently discussing Celtic Christianity. We have been reading John Phillip Newell’s book, “Listening for the Heartbeat of God.” In it, he describes the way the early Celtic Christians put more emphasis on right living than on right belief. Unlike the Roman church, they were more practical than theoretical. But historically, Roman Christianity prevailed, and right belief has been the dominating center of attention for centuries. 

Believing the right things, for example, about the Trinity made all the difference between who was considered orthodox and who was a heretic.  

There is a great irony there when we think about Jesus and where he placed the emphasis. Jesus never spoke of the Trinity or asked us to believe in that difficult doctrine.

Another irony, at least in my opinion, is that there are things we are asked to believe that are much harder than the Trinitarian co-equal status of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How about what we are asked to believe in the text we just read, that we all should be one, like God and Jesus are one?  

On one hand, nothing is more obviously not the case. It never has been the case that humans have considered themselves one with each other. 

In fact, the bizarre truth is that the worst conflicts seem to happen from those who are most like each other, save in minor details: Hutus against Tootsies in Rwanda, Serbs versus Croats in former Yugoslavia, and this past week, I just read of the deaths of hundreds of people in South Sudan because of inter-communal conflict. Having a conflict during a global pandemic ensures that even more people will die. 

People simply do not consider themselves one, even with their ethnic or ideological cousins. We tend, instead, to be tribal: viscously tribal. They say that this is how we learned to survive, back when we all wore animal skins and had bones in our noses. We are good at being one with our tribe, but only with our tribe.  

Reading John

So what do we do with texts like this? Well, let us look at it together. First, we remember that this text came from a community of Christians, living at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth. They revered Jesus. 

Jesus epitomized for them the possibility of living with a transformative God-consciousness. The historical Jesus attracted many followers, partly because people who were with him experienced the presence of God when he was present. He seemed to exude a confident trust in God. 

He spoke of God in intimate terms, calling God, Abba, Father, or more like, “papa.” Jesus had an uncanny ability to see beyond petty and socially-constructed divisions between people, welcoming and loving people who were considered uncouth and undesirable by society.  

So the community that the Gospel of John comes from revered Jesus. When John wrote his version of the Jesus-story, he used Jesus to represent God. It is admittedly a bit hard for us to grasp, but in John’s gospel, Jesus literally represents God. So, Jesus and God share the same “glory” which is a word that literally means a brilliantly shining God-ish-ness.  

And, to make it clear, John breaks the rules of grammar, portraying Jesus speaking of himself in the third person, not as first-person “me,” but as “Jesus Christ” as Jesus describes “eternal life,” saying, as he prays,  

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

The Mysticism of Jesus and the Early Church

Even though the grammar is weird, the meaning is clear. John’s community experienced a transformed life, by getting to know God through knowing Jesus. Jesus led them to a spirituality of oneness with God. 

This is the essence of mysticism, which was clearly practiced by Jesus and by early Christian communities. It is a sad anomaly of history that we gave up mystical experience for theology, creeds, and catechisms. 

But anyway, in the early centuries, they were still mystics, and they experienced oneness with God, just as Jesus did.  

So, John wrote this section in which he presents Jesus, who stands for God, in prayer to God. So, Jesus’ prayer requests are meant to express God’s will. God’s will for people is for the healing of all of the divisions between each other. He wills for their oneness. Jesus prays,

“that they may be one, as we are one.”  

Protection Needed

In order for them to be one, Jesus prays for their protection, saying, 

protect them in your name that you have given me”. 

What would they need protection from? From all of the forces that subvert God’s will for oneness. What would those be? 

There are so many forces against unity. For example, I think we need protection from the forces of tribalism that make it easy to ignore, write-off, or even despise people who are not in our tribe, our race, our religion, our party, our orientation. 

When former Evangelical pastor and author Rob Bell wrote his book “Love Wins,” in which he expressed doubt about the existence of hell, another leading Evangelical Theologian tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Belief in hell is a requirement for that tribe.  

There are many kinds of tribes these days, with their exclusions and litmus tests. I think today we need protection from the forces of tribalism that make it impossible for Democrats and Republicans to work together for common solutions to the health and economic crisis we are in because of the pandemic. 

Covid-19 could have been the common enemy that we all united to fight against together, like the way we united to fight fascism in the Second World War; but instead, we are fighting each other. Our lack of unity literally kills people.

Eternal Life Starting Now

In John, the transformed life that has experienced healing of those divisions is actually called “eternal life” that begins already here and now, in this life. Let us hear it again. Jesus prays, 

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life” is knowing God, and specifically, knowing God in the form of Jesus. For us, God is Jesus-shaped. In other words, although God is a mystery beyond human understanding, there are some things we can say about God. 

God must be as compassionate as Jesus was. God must be as inclusive as Jesus was. God must be as responsive to human suffering as Jesus was. 

Eternal life begins now, as the kind of transformed life that emulates the Jesus-perspective. 

I believe that this kind of transformation comes from mystical practices, like meditation, specifically because those practices help us with the ego; the very basis of our feeling of separation and superiority to other tribes. 

The ego wants to be superior and exclusive, to be tribal, but mystics know that that is an illusion; a dangerous, destructive illusion. Meditation, which reduces the ego voice in our heads, is what nearly all mystics practice because it is so effective.  

Unified Mission

People who have the kind of mystical insight into our essential unity are not in it for themselves; they naturally reach out to help others. John says that God “sent” Jesus into the world. 

But, lest we think that this kind of sending happened only once and only to Jesus, let us remember that that was only the first step in the sending process. Later we will hear Jesus say to the disciples, 

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  

John 20:21

So, a sense of mystical unity leads naturally to a sense of mission. We are one, sent on a mission from God to overcome all the forces of division that separate us.  

How?

How? For the historical Jesus it meant having table fellowship that broke down those divisions. It meant conducting his ministry in non-Jewish territory. It meant having conversations with people who had been marginalized, like lepers, women, and Samaritans, and with people who were responsible for marginalizing his people, the Romans, even with Roman soldiers who were implementing the repression.  

How about us? It is specifically our mission to reach out to all kinds of people with the belief that, at least in God’s perspective, we are all one. 

This fundamental belief draws us to participate in the Interfaith Fellowship. We believe that beneath our external differences, we are all one. 

This is also what opens our hearts to the poor among us, as we participate in several feeding ministries like Second Sunday Salvation Army Suppers and weekly collecting canned goods. 

We are not above people just because we have been blessed with material resources. At root, we are all one, and we have been sent on a mission in Jesus’ name. 

This sense of our foundational oneness opens us to people who have been marginalized in every way, including people with disabilities, people with mental illness, and people who have non-heterosexual orientations. 

Before this pandemic hit, we were formulating plans to create a safe space for LGBTQ youth to come for fellowship, for education, and for connection to community resources, like counseling and medical resources. 

We have become aware of the huge problem of homelessness and suicidality among those young people, and as people of faith who believe we are essentially one, we feel the call to minister to them.  

We will probably never achieve the kind of oneness we seek. The world will never be fully healed of its divisions. There will probably always be tribalism and war, just as there will always be poverty and hunger.  

But we are here because we have embraced Jesus’ vision. We believe we have been sent with a purpose to be part of God’s mission of compassion and healing. 

We will continue the kinds of mystical ego work that keep our hearts in tune with God’s heart, and leads to transformation. We will affirm together, that despite appearances to the contrary, we are one. 

The Spirit and Mental Health

The Spirit and Mental Health

Sermon for May 17, 2020, Easter 6A.

Audio will be here for several weeks. Video is at the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR Youtube channel.

John 14:5-21

[Jesus said:] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

None of us are comfortable with this situation of social distancing and isolation. Some of us are just bored. Others are dealing with all the implications of working from home; the living room becomes the office and the refrigerator is always available, neither of which is healthy for us. 

Some of us are just lonely, others are with people who are driving them crazy. There are lots of reasons for feeling unhappy with this pandemic time. 

Now, we have started looking at other people with suspicion — especially the ones in public places who will not wear masks and who ignore social distancing. But, if you are like me, you find it uncomfortable to look at other people as potential threats. How do you love your neighbor but hope they don’t come to close to you? It causes stress on top of anxiety.  

In our area, we have not had many known cases of Coronavirus, but the keyword there may be “known.” Maybe we just don’t know. We are not doing much testing here. 

A local medical service provider just told us that a kit of 20 tests she was ordering cost $1,600. She asked us to pray that her agency would get the grant they were applying for to pay for them. 

She also told us that she had seen severely sick patients in the past few months who thought they had pneumonia, but were never tested for Covid-19. In her opinion, when we do start testing on a large scale, we are going to be surprised at the number of local cases. 

Another doctor in the meeting said that the virus is not going away, and probably will be with us permanently. No one can predict how this will turn out — and the unknowns add to the stress we all feel.

Mental Health Awareness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It could not have come at a better time. All of us are newly aware of how important mental wellness is. As the song said,

Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘till it’s gone.” 

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

If mental health is a concern for those of us who were relatively healthy before the pandemic, how much more important is it for those with underlying mental health issues? 

We are going to devote our next Third Thursday program to this issue. We will be speaking with people with mental health conditions and with local therapists. We will be providing some strategies that all of us can use to help improve our mental health.  

We, people of faith, have a set of tools that can be of great benefit for our mental health. We do not have a panacea. There is no magical or even spiritual instant cure for depression, bipolar illness, or schizophrenia. Nevertheless, according to Psychology Today,

“A growing corpus of research has examined the link between religious belief, religious practice, and mental health. These studies reveal a set of consistent findings.  The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as “religiosity”) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Religiosity is also associated with better physical health and subjective well-being.

Coherence and Faith

Scientists ask the question, why would this benefit exist? One possible answer is that religious practice, both private practices, like prayer and meditation, and public practices like participation in worshipping communities “can provide a ‘sense of coherence,’ imparting deep meaning and an organizing framework to individual life experience.”

In other words, what we believe about the world we live in, whether it makes sense, whether there is a purpose, whether or not our limited mortal lives matter, makes a difference. Suffering is part of life, but it matters what we think about the world we are suffering in.

So that brings us to the Gospel text before us. This text helps us to understand how the world is coherent and meaningful, even if it does include suffering from mental health or other issues. 

No Orphans

The scene that the Gospel of John presents has Jesus and the disciples in the upper room on the night before Jesus’ arrest. In this scene, Jesus discusses his upcoming departure. By this literary device, John describes to his Christian community what it means to be followers of Jesus when Jesus is not physically present. 

The mood here is dark. The disciples are presented as anxious, confused, and fearful, maybe even depressed as they imagine life without Jesus’ presence. John’s community was experiencing these feelings.  

So, Jesus’ remarks are made specifically to address their mental health. But, if the problem is his upcoming absence, what could he possibly say that would help?  What could help John’s community, 60 years after Jesus’ earthly life, who must live without him?  

The announcement Jesus makes takes into account their feelings. He says,

I will not leave you orphaned”. 

What do we believe about the world and our place in it?  We believe that we have not been left orphaned to suffer alone. Whatever else we can say about the world, we people of faith believe it is a divinity-soaked world. We believe that God is spiritually present in every part of our universe like the way background radiation is ubiquitously present in the universe.  

God as Personal 

Yet, it is important for us, as Christians, to say something further. God is not, we believe, just a force. God is more than merely an impersonal, mindless presence in the world like energy. God is personal; that means that God has a purpose and will. God has relationships and even emotions. 

Now, we do not claim to know too much; God, we believe, is a mystery far beyond our mind’s ability to conceive. But we can say some things, and importantly, we can say that God is personal.  

This is what John’s gospel tries to capture in the scene we read. Jesus describes the way God is spiritually present with the disciples in the pictorial language of the Spirit whom, he says he will send in his absence. He describes the Spirit as an “Advocate, to be with you forever.” 

As an advocate, the Spirit takes up our case; in other words, God is not just a mindless force, rather, God is with us and for us; literally on our side.  

It is not just that God  is vastly more than a mindless force, it is also that God is our help, our refuge, our safe place.  This is  the opposite of the concept of a God who is an angry presence, as judge, jury, and executioner. 

We do not believe that God is out to punish us, causing suffering, sending us pandemics and recessions. Rather, God is with us in the middle of our suffering, on our side, helping us get through it, moment by moment.  

Present like Beauty and Truth

The spiritual presence of God is not obvious, any more than beauty is obvious. It is possible for someone to walk through the most beautiful spring day and never once take the time to notice its loveliness.  

John describes people who are not awake to the presence of the divine as “the world.” He says, “the world cannot receive [the Spirit], because it neither sees him nor knows him.” 

That is true, in my experience; some people are spiritually sensitive and others are not. But to those who pay attention, to those who are awake, the Spirit is everywhere present.  

We can say something more about the nature of God as person: God’s Spirit is “the Spirit of truth….” In another place we hear Jesus say, “the truth will set you free.” 

This is God’s purpose for us: our inner freedom to live the truth. To live with eyes wide open to the truth; to live without delusions, illusions, or in denial. This includes the truth of our conditions.  

None of us is perfect, nor are any of us perfectly healthy. We all have our dark sides, which we admit with honesty. We all have days we are not proud of. We all have shortcomings. And we can be honest about the fact that none of us is completely healthy. We can admit that we struggle with mental health. 

We are a community that is not afraid to admit that some of us suffer from depression, bi-polar issues, anxiety, and other mental health issues. 

We believe that God’s truth-oriented Spirit is with us in these conditions, just as much as God is with us when we suffer from cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

And just like those conditions, part of God’s grace comes to us through modern medicine, through drugs and therapies that can help us with these conditions.  

I have had times of depression and I benefited from therapy and medication. Like many of you, I have people in my family who have suffered anxiety and depression. I have family members who have attempted suicide and family who have become addicted to drugs that were meant to treat their mental health issues. I have family members who suffer from being bi-polar and from PTSD. 

That is my truth. But so is the truth that some have experienced great help through medicine and therapy, and some have experienced healing in some measure. 

Understanding that God is spiritually present, on our side, and helping us accept the truth has been a huge benefit to some of them.  

We may be isolated from regular social contact in these pandemic days, but we are not alone. We may be suffering in all kinds of ways these days, but we do not suffer alone. The Spirit is present as our Advocate, on our side, supporting us, moment by moment, helping us face the truth of whatever is happening with acceptance and equanimity. 

We are awake and attentive to the Spirit’s presence. We employ regular spiritual practices like prayer and meditation to help us stay awake and attentive. And we show special love and care for those among us whose suffering in these days is greater than ours because of their underlying mental health issues. There are no orphans among us; that is our truth.