From loss to celebration | 11 September 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Luke 15:1-10

 

It’s our first Sunday back in this building which is feeling both familiar and new.  It’s the opening Sunday of the Christian Education year.  And it’s the fifteen year anniversary, today, of the 9/11 attacks.

Any one of these three could be the focus of a worship theme.  But with all three we have a full plate.

One of the most startling realizations I had this past week was that for all of our young people starting Sunday school today, 9/11 is an historical event.  Something to read and hear stories about, but not something they, you, experienced personally.  Even our high school seniors were just two or three years old when it happened.  Recent college grads were in their first years of elementary school.  The post 9/11 world is the only world you’ve known.  Fifteen years ago our country was the big kid out on the playground, and got sucker punched in front of everyone.  We’ve been hitting back ever since, uncertain how to heal.

I love how our lectionary scriptures keep us grounded in a bigger story.  A story that stands on its own, yet manages to speak something fresh into our time.  Today’s two readings share a common theme of loss, with Jeremiah anticipating an impending loss, and Luke offering parables that conclude in celebration, on the other side of loss.  Loss is something that happens at every level of existence, from the national loss of an event like 9/11, to personal loss – a sheep, a coin, a parent, an ability, losing our bearings, losing our religion, losing our mind.  Loss.

Civil rights veteran John Perkins is fond of saying that a leader is someone who is willing to enter into the pain of their people.  By this definition, the prophet Jeremiah was an exemplary leader of the people of Judah during a period of national crisis.  His public witness spanned 40 years before and during the great exile, when Jerusalem and its temple were crushed by the Babylonians.  Everyone of social standing was carried away in exile.  Only the poor were left behind to work the land.

Jeremiah is sometimes known as the ‘weeping prophet.’  At the beginning of chapter 9 he cries out, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”

Chapter four, which we read part of, contains an even more visceral description of Jeremiah entering into the pain of his people.  In Verse 19 he cries out, “My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”  His people are about to be swallowed up by the violence of a massive empire, and Jeremiah is about to have a heart attack.  He feels the anguish and anxiety in his capillaries.  Being a prophet can be hazardous to one’s health.

Just as aside, it’s interesting to see the rise in the emphasis on self-care these days.  There’s a growing awareness, a healthy awareness, that taking care of your own heart is not only good for you, but good for the movement.  Jeremiah could have used this counsel.

Jeremiah 4 continues with a remarkable passage.  There are only two places in the Hebrew Bible that contain the poetic Hebrew phrase ToHu va BoHu.  In English it is translated as “formless and void,” or “formless and empty,” or, the more poetic, “welter and waste.”  It shows up here in Jeremiah 4:23.  The other, much more familiar reference, is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth, it was formless and void.”  ToHu va BoHu.

In Genesis, this characterizes the beginning point of creation.  It is the condition of chaos and disorder into which the god, Elohim, speaks, and thus creates.  It’s an account of structure emerging from no-structure that unfolds kind of like a time lapse video that we didn’t take of our stage and kitchen renovations.  Start with the void right after demolition, and watch it emerge from nothing more than an idea.  Seth Trance and Ajay Massey skillfully play the part of Elohim.  The configuration takes shape, all the infrastructure is set in place, and finishing touches are made.  It is complete, but merely beginning.  The stage is set, so to speak.  The platform is ready for action, the backdrop is ready for artistic expression, and the kitchen is ready to start cooking up all kinds of goodness.  The kitchen is almost ready.

In Genesis, Elohim utters language into the formlessness and void.  Light!  Land!  Creatures of sea, earth, and sky.  Humanity.  Order and life emerge from disorder.  Scattered atoms and molecules co-ordinate and co-operate.  Creation flows forth in ever more complex arrangements, creating and recreating itself.

Humans are birthed with god-like powers, in the image of Elohim.  The bright light of consciousness burns strong within them.  More than other creatures, they subdue animal instinct.  They will soon start making stuff, making decisions.  And Elohim saw it all, and lo, it was very good.

This is the cosmos that Genesis 1 narrates into being.   This is the sacred world of original blessing and goodness that permeated the Hebrew mind.  The world into which the children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, are born, called to be a blessing to all people.

And so when Jeremiah samples this phrase from Genesis, he conjures this entire meaning-making structure of Hebrew myth.  But for Jeremiah, the prophet of weeping and anguish, creation has gone terribly awry.   The prophet says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void, Tohu va Bohu, and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.”  When Jeremiah looks at what is happening to his people and land, he sees Genesis 1 in reverse.  The video is playing backwards.  The people, the birds, the light, are gone, and we’re back to welter and waste.  The world that he loves has been un-created.  It is a picture of devastating loss.

And it’s important to recognize this as a double loss.  There is the loss of temple, and land, the loss of precious lives, the loss of political independence.  That’s one kind of loss.  But there’s another form of loss that is equally or perhaps even more anguishing.  There is the loss of a coherent way of making sense of the world.  A crisis of meaning.  By evoking the foundational meaning-making myth of his people, Jeremiah is acknowledging that not only have the structures of their buildings been leveled, but so too has the structure of their minds.  A people whose identity was attached so closely to land, temple, and king, now has none of those.  Not only did their god not protect them, but, as far as they could imagine, their god turned against them, rousing their enemies to come and destroy them.  And now, neither they nor their go have a place to call home.  They have been exiled from all they hold sacred.  The stories they told about themselves and their divinely ordained destiny no longer fit their present reality.

After the weeping, what’s next?  In the late 60’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  But when a loss messes with the mythic structure of our minds, there’s even more work to be done.

If we can recognize ourselves, and our nation, in this story, we might wonder if we too have undergone a double loss in the last 15 years.  We’ve done well in the rebuilding of the physical structures, but our national myths and sense of collective meaning are not near as solid.  I wonder if this is one of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” has captured the imaginations of so many people.  It’s an incredibly powerful myth.  We were once a blessed and great people.  We will be great again.  Never mind that the further you go back in time toward the elusive golden age, the more and more people are disenfranchised, the closer we get to outright patriarchy, slavery of Africans and genocide of Natives.  But myths and facts don’t always rhyme, and when our meaning making structures have been rendered formless and void, we need a myth to give shape to our reality.  Even the postmodern allergy to meta-narratives is itself a kind of myth.  We can shoulder all kinds of losses and make it through to the other side of acceptance, but when we lose our story of who we are, and how we fit into the bigger picture, we are truly lost.

Why is it that a professional football player who is refusing to stand for the national anthem until something is done about black suffering is getting so much attention these days?  Could it be that his action is a full on threat to the kind of myth some folks are trying to hold on to with all their might?  A myth of our own inherent goodness and benevolence and blessedness.  For the myth to really work, everyone has to stand and pledge their allegiance to it.

When I sat down to write this sermon I didn’t set out to talk about myth, but that’s obviously the direction it took.  We are starting the Sunday school year today.  More than just learning information and  Bible stories, I suggest that the most important learning we can be doing together is the learning of an alternative myth to the ones we are regularly told.  And this is a very Anabaptist and Mennonite approach to what faith and religion offer us.  Rather than teaching us how to be nice and well-adjusted people within the political and economic systems we inhabit, our Christ-centered faith has something to say about the very underlying assumptions of what it means to be blessed, to be successful, to be human.

Our faith proposes that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross is the ultimate myth-busting event of history.  The gods of empire, nationalism, and more recently, consumer capitalism, rely on the myth of their own goodness in order to survive.  They are there to protect and shepherd us into safety and prosperity.  They are watching over us for our well-being.  Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for they are with us.  The nation’s arsenal of weapons will guard us.  The market’s vast array of consumer goods will comfort us.

But when the one who was without fault challenged the goodness of the entire program, gathering and embracing the people it left behind, going on a rant in the sacred precincts of the temple that the leaders of his own people had worked so hard to restore to make Jerusalem great again….When that one was deemed a threat to the whole project, and brutally and publicly executed, it exposed the whole mythic framework of the empire, and any religion that colludes with it.  It rendered it formless and void of any power to save those who most needed salvation.

The earth shook, the sky went dark, the temple veil was torn in two, and the age old myth that had ruled the world for so long was uncreated.  For those with eyes to see, this was ground zero of the apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalyptic world ever since.   The old myths are still gasping for breath, grasping for attention, but we’re not buying it.

You also don’t have to buy anything I’m saying.  It’s one way of reading the meaning of the Christian gospel.

And that’s not the end of it.

The gospel speaks not only of crucifixion and myth-busting, but also offers a myth of its own, a story into which we can live.  It’s a story where death is followed by resurrection.  New life, not of our own making, but life given back to us, freed from illusion, energized by love rather than fear, motivated toward restorative justice rather than vengeance.  It’s a story in which everything and everyone belongs.  It’s a story which includes death and loss, but transcends it within a wider circle of abundance and life which leads to more life.  It’s a story in which a single sheep and a single coin, a single life, is deemed valuable enough to go on a great search, to light a lamp and look under furniture.  To poke around in the darkest corners, until the lost one is found.  And when she is found, to not interogate or point fingers or lay blame, but to put out an invite to the entire list of contacts, and throw a celebration, a great fiesta, because what was lost has been found.  And the earth and heavens rejoice.

“Neither shalt thou stand idly by” |24 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25:37

A woman was walking out from her house to her car when suddenly two men snatched her purse, pushed her down, and fled the scene.  Several of her neighbors heard the commotion, opened their curtains, but quickly closed them again.  Another saw what happened and called 911.  Several others went out to the woman, helped her up, and stayed with her until the police and medics arrived.

Now the two men who mugged her were convicted felons.  They’d recently received early release from prison for good behavior.  They had every intention of finding a job and leading productive lives, but every place they applied rejected their application because of their status as felons.  Like other felons, they were barred from receiving federal cash assistance, food stamps, and other benefits.  They were also ineligible to live in public housing.  Without any source of income and without shelter, they soon resorted to petty crime to supply their needs.

They were never caught for stealing the woman’s purse.  One day, soon afterwards, they saw a news feature about a local organization with an internship program to help the formerly incarcerated get job placements.  Rather than using the word “felon,” or “ex-felon,” this organization referred to people like them as “returning citizens.”  The men visited the organization, were accepted as a part of the program, and after excelling through the six month internship, began full time jobs.  Once they were settled in an apartment with some extra cash, one of them had an idea that the other quickly agreed to, even though it involved breaking the law.

Late at night they returned to the home of the woman they had mugged.  They ran up to the mailbox, put an envelope inside (which is illegal), and drove off down the street before anyone saw them.  The next day when the woman was checking her mail she discovered an envelope full of cash, exactly twice the amount stolen from her purse months before.  She would never find out that the same people who robbed her had become her Good Samaritan.

Like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, this story never actually happened, although I did try to get the legal stuff right about the obstacles returning citizens face with felony charges.  Or maybe this story has happened, without us knowing it.  But it doesn’t have to be historical fact in order to be true.  That’s almost the definition of a parable.  True fiction.

Leviticus 19:18 commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s one of two scriptures cited by an expert in the law as an answer to his own question.  He had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus had responded by asking him how he saw it.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus had asked.  “What do you read there?”

This passage from Leviticus was already recognized as one of the best distillations of the teachings of the Torah.  The prominent Rabbi Hillel, who taught before Jesus’ time and whose teachings Jesus often echoes, was once famously asked by a potential convert to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg.  As recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel assumed the one legged pose and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary.  Go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, b. Sabb. 31a).

It’s not an exact quote from Leviticus 19:18, but it gets at the same idea.  According to Rabbi Hillel, and Jesus, and even this expert in the law, fair treatment of one’s neighbor, is the centering principle of the Torah.  Everything else is just commentary.  The Torah is one big jazz performance, with a central theme, accompanied with near endless variations on that theme.

And so simply restating that central theme is not enough for the expert in the law.  “Love your neighbor,” is too general, too broad.  It provokes a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”  Give us some commentary, Jesus.  Fill this out for us.  Tell us a story.  Now that the theme has been established, break out the instrument of choice and improvise a variation for us.

And this is what Jesus does.  After being asked this second question, “And who is my neighbor?” he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

One day, not so long ago, a young man by the name of Philando Castile was driving down the streets of suburban St. Paul, Minnesota with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter.  They were on their way home from grocery shopping.  They were pulled over by police officers who radioed a nearby squad that the two adult occupants looked like people involved in a recent robbery.  The officer approached the car and asked Castile to produce his license and registration.

Now a pastor happened to be standing near the scene.  When he saw an officer pulling over a black man he thought to himself, “This is not going to turn out well.”

An activist was also standing nearby.  When she saw this unfolding in front of her she said to herself, “Oh no, here we go again.”

Now a longtime member of the NRA was walking down the street right where the car had been pulled over.  He heard the officer ask for the license and registration and heard Philando Castile reply that they were in his wallet and he would get them out.  When Castile also gave the officer a heads up that he was licensed to carry a gun and had one on him right now, the NRA member noticed the officer reach for his handgun.  Immediately the longtime member of the NRA ran toward the driver side of the car and thrust his body between the officer and Philando Castile.

The NRA member proceeded to defend the second amendment rights of the driver and demand that the officer put his own gun back in its holster.  Several intense minutes later the situation had deescalated.

The officer went back to his car, resuming his patrol of the neighborhood; and Philando Castile, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter drove home, to put away their groceries.

Like this story, maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan was based on a true story.  Maybe the introduction of the priest and Levite and Samaritan into the mix was a way of imagining how a tragic story could have turned out differently.  What if?  What if the narrative of violence was to be interrupted by someone we would least expect?  Who, I ask you, was the true neighbor in this story?

Perhaps Jesus created the Parable of the Good Samaritan out of scratch.  Or maybe it came to him from a real situation he’d observed or heard about.  But a close reading of Leviticus 19 makes one wonder whether some key ingredients of the parable were already right there, in Leviticus.

Leviticus 19:18 clearly says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but Leviticus 19:16, two verses before it, likely gets lost in translation.  The NRSV has it saying, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  If this is the correct translation, and if one were to make a connection between verses 16 and 18 of Leviticus, one might tell a parable much like the one about the robbers who eventually make restitution for their wrongs.  They are caught up in a system in which it is hard to do good, and so they do harm to survive.  After they are shown mercy, they realize they must right the wrongs they’ve done.  They pay back the harm they’ve caused, thereby fulfilling both commandments, Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I like this story, and since our Bible school theme is Surprise!, I like the surprise twist this places on the familiar parable.  Last week I talked about the injured traveler as the lost character in this parable, the one the original listeners would have identified with but who plays only a minor and passive role in our typical hearing.  But the robbers are the real lost characters.  Why have they stooped to robbing, and where is their redemption?

This is jazz, and a riff like that is perfectly in bounds under the unwritten rules of variations on a theme, but it’s not the variation Jesus took, and that translation of Leviticus 19:16 is not the one the rabbis have favored over the centuries.

The King James Version is a little closer to the plain meaning of the Hebrew, but is still kind of obscure: “neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  Maybe that wasn’t obscure when it was translated 400 years ago, but I’m not sure what it means to “stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  But the Hebrew word is indeed “stand” rather than “profit,” and there’s some relationship between that posture, and the blood of one’s neighbor.

The traditional translation from the Jewish Publication Society clarifies this.  It uses the phrase that I included as the sermon title: “neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”  This translation makes Leviticus 19:16 a commandment against indifference, and noninvolvement.  It is reaffirmed in other Jewish writings, and it’s enticing to think it could have been the inspiration for the angle Jesus takes in his parable.

One ancient rabbinical teaching stated, “if you are in a position to offer testimony on someone’s behalf you are not permitted to remain silent.” (Sipra Qedosim 4:8; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).  And since we’re already cited the Talmud this morning, a different Talmud portion acts as further commentary on Leviticus 19:16: “If one sees someone drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers one is obligated to save him, but not at the risk of one’s life” (b. Sanh. 73a).  The Talmud wasn’t edited and completed until centuries after Jesus, but that does sound a whole lot like the beginnings of a parable I think I’ve heard before.   In Jewish tradition, from the Torah to the Talmud, indifference, standing idly by, is not acceptable.

Last week I encouraged us to identify with the half dead traveler in Jesus’ parable.  Rather than seeing ourselves only as the helper, this challenges us to find ourselves in a story in which we are not the hero.  This goes against a lot of our training of how to be a good person.

But Jesus does eventually invite his listeners to identify with the Samaritan.  After telling the parable, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?”  To which the left-leaning pacifist reluctantly replies, “I suppose it was the longtime NRA member.”  To which Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

As I hear that original parable spoken to us, especially in our antiracism work, I hear an invitation for us to enter into a dual consciousness.  We are not the hero of this story.  We too need help.  We need delivered from our half-dead state.

And we are also called to the monumental task of overcoming the sin of indifference, or, if the Torah would have its way, the crime of indifference.  “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I fully believe that there are countless variations on this theme, and that there is no single right way to do this.  It can range from taking to the streets, to talking with young children who are picking up on this theme and have lots of great questions.

And so, my fellow-non heroes of this story: How might we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors?

 

A ship for the storm | 19 June 2016

Text: Luke 8:16-25

It’s the time of year for church conferences.  This Thursday we’ll begin hosting the Central District annual gathering.  If this were an odd numbered year, we’d also be preparing for the national Mennonite Church USA Convention, which is usually over the fourth of July and often in a southern state.  Having Conventions in July in the South is one of the ways frugal Mennonites save money.  Next summer we’ll be in Florida, in Orlando.  The venue of course was decided some time ago, and up until last week the main association in our house with Orlando was whether the girls would get to go to Harry Potter world.

For the last week, Orlando has become synonymous with death and trauma.  There was unimaginable horror inside the Pulse nightclub directed against queer and trans Latinx folks.  Yesterday’s Pride Parade in Columbus was both a sobering and celebratative time for LGBT folks and allies to gather as a community and express solidarity with one another.

Like last week, we designated this Sunday as a time to do some reflecting on the life of the wider Mennonite church.  The timing in coincidental, but this being Pride weekend, and having Orlando so fresh in our minds, sharpens the question of how our deeply divided denomination will move forward in relationship to LGBT members among us.  Like last week, we are focusing on one of the scriptures that will be used during CDC worship services.  All three of those services are based on stories from Luke 8, which is right where the lectionary is these days.

Very early on, leaders of the Christian movement used the image of a ship or a boat, as a metaphor for the church.  Hints of this can be traced all the way back to the New Testament.  The letter of 1 Peter makes a connection between the death and resurrection one experiences through the waters of baptism, and the ark of Noah and his family that brought them through the ancient flood waters.  In the Noah myth, the ark, the ship, preserved human and animals through the overwhelming waters as the old world underwent a death and resurrection.  Even before Genesis tells that story, it portrays the world as a watery chaos.  Now the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim, the god, swept over the face of the waters.

In the second century, Clement of Alexandria noted that a sea vessel was one of the appropriate Christian symbols to use for a signet ring.

Church father Tertullian, writing in the second and third century, spoke of the ship in which the disciples were tossed back and forth on the sea as a figure for the church.

This symbol later became much more tangible in church architecture.  The traditional name for the main body of the church is the nave.  It means ship, and takes its name from the same Latin word we use for the navy.  The nave, the ship, is where the laity sits.  It holds the people.  Many centuries ago, church leaders recognized that the proverbial watery chaos out of which the world was created had not gone away.  What is needed, what we have been granted by God through the church, they believed, was a vessel to carry us through the floods and storms.

Looking up at the arching beams in some cathedrals is very much like looking down into the ribs of a ship.  This is by design.  I’m not sure what kind of ship it is we’re floating in here.  Definitely a Protestant ship.

Before the story of the boat on the stormy waters, Luke 8 contains another image of the church.  Luke writes: “Just then (Jesus’) mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get through the crowds.”  Supposedly this is Jesus’ biological mother and brothers, his kinship group that so thoroughly defined identity and responsibility in the ancient world.  As a son and brother, Jesus has a cultural/religious obligation of loyalty and honor toward his kin.  But in one crisp statement, Jesus redefines, or at least expands, the notion of family.  He says to those gathered around him, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

This was most likely a very painful moment and ongoing source of tension for Jesus’ family of origin.  But it is pretty sweet for everyone else, those of us who are suddenly on the inside of Jesus’ kinship group.  It’s a prominent metaphor for the church that we continue to use.  The church as a family, defined not by blood or ethnic lines, but by a common commitment to hear the Word, however that might come to us.  And to do it.  We are the clan of the hearers and doers.  Or, as one friend has put it:  The “tryers.”  We try.  Those responsibilities once reserved for closest of kin now apply to the church.  To care for one another.  To support and visit each other when we’re sick, or in prison.  To bake a casserole.  To give when we can give, and receive when we need to receive.  Or at least try.  This is how healthy families function.  The church comes into being under the banner of a new kinship group.  And the repercussions of this, still working themselves out, have never been smooth sailing.

It’s at this point in Luke’s gospel, not so coincidentally, when Jesus and his disciples, spiritual siblings all, climb into the boat to go to the other side of the lake.  Observant commentators have pointed out that when the gospels speak of going to “the other side” of the lake, the sea of Galilee, that this is loaded with symbolic significance.  Roughly speaking, the western side of that body of water was populated by Jews, while the eastern side was populated by Gentiles – non Jews.  The story right after this lake crossing is when Jesus encounters Legion, and unclean tombs, and pigs.  Very un-Jewish.  Going to the other side is an act of bridging and connecting the human family, separated by the waters, now, in process of being brought together under the banner of a new kinship group.  Going to the “other side” is not a smooth ride.

And so, while Jesus takes a well-deserved nap on board, a windstorm sweeps down on the lake, and the boat is nearly overwhelmed.  As it fills with water, the newly dubbed siblings scramble to wake up their elder brother Jesus, shouting: “Master, Master, we are perishing!”  We’re dying in here!  In this story, church father Tertullian found a ready-made metaphor for life in this imperfect family, this precarious ship, we refer to as ‘the church.’  The church as a ship, a boat, holding us through dangerous and stormy waters, accompanied by Jesus.

One of the things I see now in the Mennonite Church in the US is that just about everybody agrees we’re in the middle of a storm, but we disagree sharply about what the storm is.  For some, the storm is the dangerous waters of secularism.  The storm is trying to carry us away from our biblical foundations.  The church is to carry us safely through these waves of cultural deterioration that threaten to take us down.  For others, the storm is the dangerous waters of religious fundamentalism.  The church is the space where we can breathe fresh air even as the rigid readings of scripture, within our own tradition and others, threaten to drown the human spirit.

For some the storm is caused by who we are letting on board the ship, and for others, the storm is caused by those who keep people off the ship.

There’s a mighty storm raging, but when what some people believe to be beautiful and faithful is seen by others as the very cause of the storm, where does that leave us?

This past week I had some exchange with a friend who has worked relentlessly for the last decade to make the national Mennonite church a welcoming place for folks who identify as queer.  This person has been met with much resistance.  One of my questions to them, asked out of genuine curiosity but also concern, was this: “Why do you and other queer folks remain engaged with the Mennonite Church?  It seems something akin to (or just is) an abusive relationship.  Why invest precious emotional energy toward an unrepentant system?”

Their response: “This is…a very good question.  One I’ve been considering deeply lately.  It’s an open question for me.”

The truth of the matter is that untold numbers of LGBT folks have had to leave the Mennonite and other churches for their own soul survival.  I haven’t seen any write ups on how anyone in the Pulse club in Orlando related with religion, but I have no doubt that for many of them, Pulse was their ship.  Pulse was their sanctuary in the storm.  Pulse was the place where they knew they were with family, an extended kinship group abounding in a love they may not have encountered anywhere outside those walls.

The church is a ship, but it appears there are many other vessels afloat on these waters.  And I would venture to say that Christ is very much alive and present in Pulse, and other places of sanctuary, declaring “Peace, be still.”  Rebuking the wind and raging waves.

When theologians have spoken of ‘the church’ they have meant, by and large, the church universal.  That’s catholic, little “c,” church.  “I believe in the holy catholic church,” the Apostles Creed says.  The church is greater than a single congregation, greater than a conference or denomination, greater than national boundaries.  It is not a little fishing boat.  It is an ocean liner.

I recognize this is not how most of us here experience the church.  It’s a truism these days in church leadership circles that people don’t join a denomination, they join a congregation.  In other words, most of you might care hardly at all about what Mennonite Church USA is doing.  What matters is that you are journeying with this group of people, this eccentric extended family, who you see face to face, some of whom literally walk alongside you through life.  Yet, it remains, that to be in this church is also to be in the bigger boat, whether we like it or not.  If you have mixed feelings about this, you are not alone.

I have nothing conclusive to say about any of this.  I’m grateful that our congregation is working at being a place of sanctuary and bravery for queer folks and those of us learning how to be allies.  I’m grateful we’re talking about white privilege and black lives matter and intersectionality.  I’m grateful we are a part of a tradition that names its rejection of violence in all forms, even if we aren’t living up to the high calling.  I’m saddened that some have to leave in order to survive.

I have to believe that the boat is not merely a floatation devise riding out the waves, but that we are actually going somewhere.  I don’t even know if the denominational ship will hold together at this point, but there is some boat, somewhere, that is headed to the other side, and I want to be on board.  We are headed to the glorious and unknown other side.  Even if you don’t know what you believe about God and Jesus and salvation and church and all that, you know intuitively that this cannot be a solo journey, and we have chosen a group of people to journey with together.  Friends, we surely have not yet arrived, but we are on our way to the other side.  And whether he’s napping, or on the lookout, or hanging out on the deck, or dancing to the pulse of the music with all the dark skinned queers, the Christ is with us.  And that’s good news.  Lord knows, we need some help in these waters.

Going sane | 12 June 2016

Text: Luke 8:26-39

hellolegion

The prophet Isaiah once walked around the land of Judah barefoot and naked – for three years.  This likely falls under the category of “Bible stories I didn’t learn in Sunday school.”  We are rather fond of Isaiah overall.  This is the prophet who spoke of the peaceable kingdom: “the wolf shall live with the lamb…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Who declared, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”  The same prophet who spoke of the coming of Immanuel, whose vision of a just and wise ruler we so readily connect with the person of Jesus.  This prophet, Isaiah, one of the most cherished voices in Jewish and Christian tradition– once went three years without wearing any clothes – in public.

He did this as a sign.  That’s what it says in Isaiah chapter 20 where this happens.  The Lord, Yahweh, wanted naked Isaiah to be a sign to the people about what would happen to those who violently rebelled against the great empire of their day, Assyria.  They would be stripped of all they had and utterly put to shame.  Over the span of those three years, every time Isaiah passed their way, people would have to consider that it was their own nakedness that was really at stake.

Wendell Berry has a whole series of poems about The Mad Farmer.  He’s willing to claim this title for himself because of his belief that in a world gone insane with greed and destruction, the only sane response is to go “mad.”  We’ve borrowed the last line from one of his more well-known poems, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, for past Easter worship themes: “Practice resurrection.”

Here are some words from another poem “The contrariness of the Mad Farmer:”

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.

 

Who’s the crazy one?  The Mad Farmer who tills, and plants, and reaps, and dances at all the wrong times, or those who stand quietly in line at the gate of the Kingdom?

Who’s the crazy one?  The naked prophet who walks in peace, or the clothed countrymen who prepare for war?

In Luke chapter 8 Jesus encounters a person who, by just about any measure, is crazy.  Luke refers to him as “a man of the city.”  Cities are hubs of civilization, where culture and technology and learning collide and collaborate in a cosmopolitan mix.  We’re in one right now.  But Luke goes on to describe how this man has abandoned the standard markers of civilized life.  “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.”

Along with being homeless and clothes-less, this man’s social manners leave something to be desired.  Rather than greeting Jesus with a handshake, a fist bump, a hello, or even a silent head nod, he falls down in front of Jesus and shouts at the top of his voice.  Luke goes on to fill out the picture of this man by noting that he was often kept under guard and even chained down, but that he would break the chains, and wander into the wilds.

In the first century, a person like this was said to have demons.  We once called this condition insanity, and would now classify it under any number of mental illnesses.

A scholar and activist by the name of Ched Myers was the first person I ever heard suggest that more might be going on here than just a troubled individual in need of personal healing.  Ched points to the interaction that happens after Luke has established this man’s symptoms.

Jesus asks, “What is your name?”  The reply: “Legion.”

A legion was a Roman army contingent of several thousand soldiers.  Jesus and this person whose name his momma and daddy gave him at birth was certainly not “Legion,” and all the people of the region lived under occupation, their land possessed by an uninvited, and unwanted power.   What the people were experiencing collectively, this person was experiencing personally, with the possession and occupation of his body, his mind.  The cycle of being chained and trying to break free, chained and trying to break free; the contradictions of needing to both suppress and express anger, anxiety and anguish, are all manifested in this one person.  Everyone in the city, and in the countryside goes about their daily business, but all is not well, and this man is a sign of a much larger dis-ease.

A couple weeks ago I had lunch with Molly Shack.  She was born and raised in Columbus and works with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.  She spoke at a recent racial justice event in Columbus.  Over the course of conversation Molly noted that she was close friends with MarShawn McCarrel who was the young man who died by suicide on the Ohio Statehouse steps in February.  MarShawn was a Black Lives Matter activist.  Molly said she experienced this as a major wake up call for how important it is for people like her and MarShawn to take care of themselves and not be overcome by the heaviness of their work.  She felt like MarShawn was a healthy person, who had taken on too many of the demons of society.  I told her I also had a close friend who took his own life in his twenties and how I had felt that Shem, rather than being blind, actually saw more clearly than most people.  That he gazed deeper than most into the troubles of the world, and that he just couldn’t find a place to stand firm in the midst of it all.  She nodded her head in agreement, and we had an unexpected moment of shared grief.

Who are the crazy ones?  Who is the sign for whom?  What are the prophets of Yahweh saying these days?

Please hear me that I am in no way saying that all mental illness can be attributed to the ills of society, or that suicide is always some kind of noble prophetic act.

What this gospel story asks of us is to consider all the powers that possess and colonize our minds, and how we do or don’t respond and resist.  Who and what gets to define what it means to be healthy and sane?

Jesus is not deterred by the Legion.  In a not so subtle wink of Jewish humor, he sends the pathetic demons into a group of nearby pigs, who proceed to rush to their own destruction, the legion army drowned in the sea just like Pharaoh’s horse and riders of long ago.  While I’m not particularly fond of the idea of my precious Jesus allowing the death of all these animals, I can accept the point of the story.  Jesus has cast out the power which occupied the man and the land.  As a bonus, these unclean pigs running around Gentile territory have been removed from the premises to make it kosher for Jews to hang out.  The man is soon clothed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus feet not as someone shouting obscenities, but as a disciple.  All is now well.

Except, all is not well.  The story isn’t done quite yet.  Apparently there have been people watching this all along.  There are witnesses.  They see the transformation in this man, crazy ole’ Legion, who is now well.  This is supposed to be a Monty Python moment when “there was much rejoicing.”  Instead it says that the witnesses were afraid.  When word spreads to others, people come from the whole surrounding countryside to see, and once again, Luke notes that they were “seized with great fear.”

Crazy ole’ Legion, that wild man who couldn’t hold down a job or a home and lived naked in the tombs, who mothers warned their children about, who men joked about and cursed in the marketplace, who older children told scary stories about to the younger children, who had become a thing of legend, everything evil and scary and wrong with the world projected onto this one individual, crazy ‘ole Legion.

Now there’s nothing wrong with him at all.  He is just a normal human being.  Now the people no longer have a safe place to heap all their own anxiety and anger and dis-ease.  Now they must come face to face with what possesses them, and do their own soul work of resistance and healing.  They had needed this man to be crazy, the village idiot, the scapegoat, the queer, the one out there who shelters them from their own dis-ease.  This man is clothed and in his right mind, and the people are terrified.

The equilibrium has been disturbed.  The family system has lost its homeostasis.  He has exposed what was hidden.  Luke reports: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”  Jesus must go.  Now.  If he leaves, we can restore the balance.  Find another person or group to carry the blame.  They can be crazy and we can be sane, and all will be well.

If he stays, then there is no outside.  There are no outer spaces, no unclean haunts.  There are no places left to hide our demons.

If the Christ stays, we will have to face our own deepest hurts and anxieties.  We will have to confess our own complicity.  We will be exposed.

If we send the Christ away, we can restore the balance.

If he stays…who knows what will happen?

 

 

Idle tales of resurrection | Easter Sunday | 27 March 2016

Text: Luke 24:1-12

When I say “Christ is Risen” you say “Christ is Risen indeed!”

“Christ is risen!…..

“Christ is risen!…..

After a season of Lent, 40 days of wandering through the wilderness of racism’s persistence around us and within us…We need resurrection.

After confronting the devil of white privilege and its many temptations…We need resurrection.

After considering the subtle lure of colorblindness, naming and rejecting racial hierarchy…We all need resurrection.

After honoring and lamenting names of the crucified, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, after confessing our own complicity in systems and attitudes that possess and oppress, after last week’s spoken word throw down, memorized, mesmorized, Whoa, did that just happen? in a Mennonite Church?  After 40 days of wondering in the wilderness that is 21st century America…

We need, we want, we long for resurrection.

Each gospel gives a different combination of characters who first witness Jesus’ resurrection.  In John it’s Mary Magdalene who goes to the tomb alone, only to find it empty.  It Matthew, it’s Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” who go together, as the sun rose on the first day of the week.  Mark says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were the ones who went, bringing their spices to anoint the dead body that wasn’t there.

One, two, three witnesses to resurrection.

In the Torah, the testimony of one witness wasn’t enough for a criminal accusation or otherwise, but bring in two or three witnesses and you had yourself a case.  As if following its own criteria, the book of Deuteronomy states this law twice, once in chapter 17 and once in chapter 19, these two chapters each a witness to the requirement that evidence must be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Of all the gospels, Luke’s scene at the empty tomb is the most…crowded.  There’s no Jesus, but there are two beings in dazzling clothes declaring “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”  The human witnesses, perplexed and terrified – understandably, return to tell the apostles.  Luke says, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women with them who told this to the apostles.  Wait, how many?  These three and the “other women with them?”  Five?  Ten?  Twenty?  More?

But it doesn’t matter.  The law of two or three witnesses only applied to men.  Women weren’t even considered eligible, credible, reliable, for being a witness.  One, twenty, it doesn’t matter.  The official apostles hear what these women have to say, “But,” Luke says, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

An idle tale.  Resurrection is an idle tale told by illegitimate witnesses.

I confess I struggle with the notion of resurrection.  My reasons are different than those living in the pre-modern world.  My reasons are based on, well, reason.  I get hung up with questions like OK, so what is the biology of resurrection?  What’s the chemistry, the physics?  I’m at the point where I’m totally good with the resurrection of Jesus revealing a whole dimension of reality we’re presently oblivious to.  Totally good and open to that.  But I’m also willing to accept the non-literalness of this story.  The gospel writers certainly weren’t all that concerned with an exact history since their accounts are so different.

I recognize this puts me out of step with Christian orthodoxy, and I don’t always know what to do with that.  Some of you may find yourselves in a similar position, or some of you may hold the bodily resurrection of Jesus as utterly central to your Christian faith.  What we share among us, I’m fairly confident, is a conviction that we need resurrection.  We desperately need the miraculous gift of life overcoming the forces of death we see all around us.  And not just as a spiritual abstraction.  We long for resurrection to raise up and energize and animate bodies, even crucified bodies.  Especially crucified bodies.

On the evening of February 26, 2012, 17 year old African American Trayvonn Martin was walking home, returning from a 7-11 where he bought a bag of Skittles and a fruit drink.  You know this story.  He was spotted by volunteer Neighborhood Watch person George Zimmerman who called 911 reporting that he saw a “suspicious person.”  Although instructed to stay in his car, Zimmerman approached Martin, there was an altercation in which Zimmerman was injured, and Zimmerman shot Martin dead, later claiming self defense.

Here’s more of the story:  In the summer of 2013, reacting to a jury’s acquittal of Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvonn Martin, Alicia Garza wrote a Facebook post titled “A Love Note to Black People.”  As part of this letter she wrote, “Our lives matter.  Black lives matter.”  Garza’s friend Patrisse Cullors replied “#BlackLivesMatter.”  Opal Tometi soon registered her support.  These women had met earlier through a community organizing initiative.  That one Facebook “Love Note to Black People,” and the responses that followed, was the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, founded by these three black women.  Initially a social media meme, later a decentralized social movement that continues to mobilize people to insist on the value and dignity of black life.

When I say “Black Lives Matter” you say “Black Lives Matter.”

“Black Lives Matter…..

“Black Lives Matter…

Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors both queer black women.  Opal Tometi, a Nigerian-American immigrant.  One, two, three witnesses.   And the others with them who follow on social media, and gather in the streets.

Unlike the leaders of the civil rights movement, these women and many young black activists are not a part of the church.  Just this week The Atlantic published an article titled “Black Activism, Unchurched” which explores this phenomenon.  Just a few weeks earlier the Christian Century magazine had a lead article in which Duke Divinity School professor Eboni Marshall Turman declared: “Black Lives Matter is the Jesus event of the 21st century.” (March 16, 2016, p. 30)

We need resurrection.  But who can be considered a reliable witness?  Whose stories count?

In Luke’s gospel, this cohort of women who went to the tomb Easter morning also show up a little earlier.  They are the ones who had been present as Jesus’ body hung on an instrument of death.  Before they witnessed resurrection, they witnessed crucifixion.  They were witnesses to suffering, witnesses to death, and they stayed near the body and watched where it was laid.

We read these gospel texts every year, and this year, as we’ve been confronting racism, I’m especially drawn to this:  That it was those who had the horror of witnessing crucifixion who also had the honor of first witnessing resurrection.  Almost as if the qualification for being a witness to resurrection was, is? being close to suffering.  That’s how you earn not just your street cred, but your divine privilege of being a witness.  When the people you love are brutalized and beat down, and when you show up to care for their wounds, you are in the privileged position of being the first to testify to the resurgence of life and love, both with capital L’s.  It’s not the respectable of society who are the first to shout about resurrection.  Not even the official disciples.  It is the uncredentialed.

That sounds like the kind of privilege no one should have to have.  We’ve been talking about white privilege, but this is privilege flipped on its head.  It’s similar, perhaps, to those who have suffered a great loss in their personal life, or survived cancer.  Something no one should have to endure.  But when you’re close to suffering and death you see things that others don’t see.  You get entrusted with something.  You become a witness to a truth that others have either failed to see or just can’t see because of where they’re standing.  And you testify, you stand up, you tell your idle tale, your truth, what you now know to be absolutely, beautifully true.  Christ is risen!  Join the movement!  Death is swallowed up in life.

And if this is not you, if you’re the one hearing about rather than declaring resurrection, then remember Peter, one of the apostles who hears the idle tale.  Whether he was doubting these women witnesses, or pondering biology and chemistry, he does get up.  He does move.  He relocates his body and runs toward the scene of the crime.  He stoops and looks into the tomb.  And he sees.  He sees.  And, as Luke says, “then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

 

Hen in the foxhouse | Lent 2 |21 February 2016

Texts: Psalm 27, Luke 13:31-35

 The image on the bulletin cover is a mosaic inside the Dominus Flevit church.  The church is located on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, and commemorates two occasions in Luke’s gospel:  The one we just read, when Jesus speaks of the people of Jerusalem and compares himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings.  And when Jesus later approaches Jerusalem and weeps over the city, lamenting that it does not know the things that make for peace.  Dominus Flevit means, “The Lord wept.”

Personally, any Bible story that features a chicken as one of the main characters is one that gets my attention.  Especially when the chicken = Jesus.  I love that in the mosaic the chicken has a halo.  Awesome.  Our three backyard feathered girls are doing just fine through the winter, although their egg production has trailed off a bit.  They’re still saints and miracle workers for turning our food scraps into tasty eggs.

Jesus the hen cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”  It’s a loving maternal image, of protection, and shelter, and sanctuary.

Back in December we hosted an evening gathering for the BREAD organization – the annual research kick-off.  A little ways into the meeting I noticed that one of the other pastors was motioning to get my attention.  After realizing that he wanted to talk, right now, I slid out of my seat and we huddled quietly in the back of the sanctuary.  He had what seemed to me at the time like a very random concern.  He wanted to know if our lights in the foyer were on a motion sensor.  He’d noticed that they had switched off, and was worried someone might have come in from the street and turned them off.  I said Yes, the lights are on a motion sensor, and they do switch off if no one has been in that space for 15 or 20 minutes.  He was reassured by this, because, he said, a person who would turn off the lights might use the darkness as a cover to do harm.

A couple days later I was casually wondering what this had been about.  Why would this pastor be concerned about something that had never even entered my mind?  That someone would come in off the street and shut down the foyer lights?  After a little more wondering, a few pieces started coming together.  I remembered that six months earlier a young man, a white supremacist, had entered the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  After participating in a Bible study, he pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot and kill nine people, all of them black, all the while yelling out racial insults.  I remembered skimming over an article about how various African American congregations were training their people to be prepared if their church was targeted – what initial signs to look for, and how to respond if the unthinkable started happening.  I remembered the seriousness with which that pastor had spoken to me in the middle of that BREAD meeting.   It started to sink in that this pastor, an African American man, had been living with a kind of vigilance I’d never considered necessary.  When he saw the lights go out, it triggered a whole scenario in his head.  Part of his pastoral care duties involved helping his people prepare for their own sanctuary being violated with violence.  It puts another spin on sheltering your people under a protective wing.

When the new Bible study lunch group met this past week we discussed our experience of race alongside this passage, including our own sense of safety and comfort as white people.  One person noted that her life has never been in real danger, and we nodded our heads.  Metaphorically speaking, our lives have, for the most part, been lived underneath the wing.  How much of this has been the Divine wing, and how much of this has been the culturally-constructed protective wing of privilege is yet to be sorted out.

This led into a related discussion about how easily we make people out to be “the other.”  Of the six gathered around the table, two had gone through their entire elementary, middle, and high school years without ever having a non-white person as a classmate.  Another had only one, K-12.  A couple others had extensive international and intercultural experience.  But we confessed that we still share this impulse of seeing “otherness” in people who look different than us.

One person noted that these are deep biological mechanisms we’re born with.  Along the evolutionary line, we developed instincts to detect difference and otherness – to keep us safe.

We noticed that in this gospel passage, safety and security are presented as an option that Jesus chooses against.  We’re used to viewing the Pharisees as the bad boys of the gospels, but in truth they had a lot in common with Jesus.  So when several of them speak up for Jesus’ protection we can take them at their word.  Luke writes, “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’”  It’s probably a well-intentioned warning, but Jesus has already thought it through.  He’ll soon refer to himself as a hen who longs to gather her chicks under her protective wings, but first he sets the stage by referencing another animal, a fox.  You can go tell that fox, Herod, that I’m going to do my thing and that I’m coming his way.  Herod, of course, represents more than just the person of Herod.  Jesus knows that Herod is merely the most recent representative of a system that tries to preserve itself at all costs, at the expense of anyone who challenges it.  Live in the shadows, keep a low profile, let the fox do its thing, and everything will be OK.

Jesus explicitly rejects this option.

But he doesn’t exactly set himself up for success in calling Herod a fox and himself a hen.  A hen in the foxhouse doesn’t stand a chance.

How much did Jesus have to love Jerusalem in order to walk towards it, rather than away from it?  How much did his biting critique of it as the killer of prophets have to come out his underlying, overwhelming love for his people whom he longed to gather together, to hold them safely and securely, under expansive and sheltering wings?

What does it mean for us to walk toward Jerusalem, rather than away from it?  Not that any of us are planning on getting ourselves crucified, but on a more local and day to day level, what does it look like to walk towards injustice, rather than opt out of the struggle?  Or simply to allow our eyes to be opened and our consciousness and awareness to be transformed?  Like realizing that even being in a space like this, a sanctuary, with little to no fear that we will be targeted for who we are, is not always a “privilege” that everyone has.  Just being aware of that can make us more compassionate people.

Locally, here are some interesting statistics to consider.

In 2013 Business Insider ranked Columbus as the 21st most racially segregated city in the US.  That’s better than Cincinnati #11 and Cleveland #8.  Better than Milwaukee #2, or Detroit, #1.  But in the national context we do live in one of the more racially segregated cities.

A different study in 2015 out of the University of Toronto ranked American cities by economic segregation.  And Columbus ranked second worst in that study.  Only Austin, Texas is more economically segregated.

Well,, we love our city, our county, we love its diversity, its parks and libraries and food and entertainment and bike trails, its people.  Lord knows we love our Buckeyes.  We love Columbus.  But there are many ways that it keeps people separated from each other and perpetuates all kinds of systemic and generational problems that result from that.

What does it mean to walk toward Jerusalem rather than away from it?  To question and challenge “Herod?”  What does it mean to both live under the shelter of the Divine wing while also venturing out from the comfort of the nest that our culture has prepared for us?  A comment from our group was that white privilege and the “safety” it provides comes with a great spiritual cost.  Not only do we not feel the daily need for Divine protection, something the Psalmist expresses so often, but we can easily be blinded to what’s really going on around us.

These are open questions and I’m grateful they are questions that many of you have been working on for a long time.  Throughout this year I encourage us to tell not only troubling stories, but also good news stories of how you and others are walking this walk.  Perhaps several of you have brief stories to tell during the reflection time after the sermon.

Given the way Jesus sets this whole scenario up, it’s remarkable there’s anything to celebrate about what went down when he did enter Jerusalem.  The extraordinary claim of Christian faith is that when the hen went into the foxhouse, the hen won.  Not by any standard measure.  Not by outfoxing the fox, but by refusing to play the foxes game, and using a different kind of power.

I want to end with a piece I saw this week.  It’s a rewrite of 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, written by a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, for folks who are right in the middle of conflicted spaces.  And as I read this, perhaps you want to look again at the bulletin cover, the haloed chicken, and consider the fierce power of the hen in the foxhouse.

This was written earlier this month by Peter Haresnape of Christian Peacemaker Teams.

If I speak about courage and justice, and siding with the oppressed, and speaking truth to power no matter the cost, but do not speak about love… I am just a loudmouth orator, a white saviour, a shameless self-promoter.

If I am excellent at nonviolent communication, and I take great pictures, and I know all the latest anti-oppressive lingo, and I can analyse racist systems so as to dismantle them entirely, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I fully embrace the work of prophet and activist and martyr, and get dragged away by the riot police or bombed by the military of my own country, but have not love, that is no use to anyone.

Love is patient. Love survives evil, war, oppression. It remains when the teargas clears and the children go back to school. It is still there when the water is protected. Love is kind, not arrogant, not insisting on its own way, but making space for joy and truth even in the hardest circumstance.

Whether it is love between two people, or love of a person for their community, or love of a community for its land, or love of justice and peace and equity, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Clever words will be forgotten. The most interesting facts are subject to revision. The best sermon you’ve ever heard – you will forget. Right now, everything we do is flawed and inaccurate. But. One day we’ll experience Truth with a Capital T. And then all this will be unnecessary.

Before I was mature, I was immature. In becoming mature, I left behind ways of speaking, thinking and reasoning that were immature.

Right now we’re hearing murmurs, reading translations, seeing shadows on the wall, but one day we’ll see face-to-face.

Right now, half of the time I’m guessing, but one day I will know beyond all doubt – and I will be fully known.

What remains when it is all stripped away is three things:
Faith that the flawed world as we see it is not all that there is;
Hope that the next generation will live in a better world;
and Love to give us the strength and motivation to build it.

The greatest of these is Love.

A parable on privilege | Lent 1 |14 February 2016

Texts: Psalm 91:1-2,9-16; Luke 4:1-13

On our Learning Tour in Palestine we attended a Sunday worship service near Bethlehem.  Our group of 15 Americans made up half the congregation.  The young Palestinian pastor led the service in Arabic, but at the end of his sermon he addressed us in English.  He urged us to remember them when we returned home, to speak about what we had seen and heard.  To tell their stories.  One of the reasons he gave for why this was so important was this:  He said – “Because America is god.”

As startling as this was to hear in a worship setting, it was important to see.  In their world, our country has the power to save or destroy, to give life or take it away.  It was quite a benediction, for us fifteen Americans to leave that small Palestinian church, having just been told that we are sons and daughters – of god.

We told some of those stories during Advent.  Now it’s Lent, and we are inviting God to trouble the waters again, this time closer to home: Race and racism in America.  And not just racism as a matter of improving interpersonal relationships, as important as that is.  But racism as an environment, a habitat in which we live and move and have our being, a psychological and spiritual field of experience, that we are all caught up in.  Something along the lines of what the writer of Ephesians meant when he said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood” – we’re not out here looking for evil people.  Instead the real enemy, as Ephesians puts it, is “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”  The principalities and powers.

This all sounds a bit serious and heavy, so we are approaching it the way that seemed to be Jesus’ favorite method of overturning the present order – by sitting around a table with friends new and old and enjoying some excellent food together.  The sermons during Lent will be presented as monologues, just one person talking, but they have emerged out of dialogues, trialogues, or whatever you call six people talking together in between bites of soup and bread.  Hexalogues.  Hexalunches.   We’re using the sharing time after the sermon to welcome your brief reflections and thoughts on what you hear.

This reflection comes out of one of those hexalogue/lunches –and there are still spaces open for upcoming ones.

Lent begins in the wilderness.  More specifically, in the wilderness with Jesus.  A hungry, thirsty, famished Jesus.  Forty days of fasting will do that to a person.  A vulnerable Jesus.  A very human Jesus face to face with the psychological and spiritual field of experience of his time, and all the inner thoughts and motivations tied up in that.  Let’s go into the wilderness with Jesus.  Into the wilderness with Jesus, and the devil.

The devil famously makes three offers to Jesus.  Three pitches.  Three business proposals, for how Jesus might go about his business as a representative of God.  The first and last of these temptations, as we’ve come to call them, begin with the devil saying, “If you are the Son of God…”  This phrase could also be translated “Since you are the Son of God…” and we can read that the provocation behind these words is not so much asking Jesus to prove that he’s the Son of God by doing this or that or this other thing, like a series of magic tricks.  But rather granting up front that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, with all the power and authority that title carried in the ancient world, and then challenging him how he will use that power.  The temptations aren’t so much asking for a proof of power, as they are challenging how that power will be wielded.

Let’s go into the wilderness with Jesus.  Into the wilderness with Jesus and the devil.  But let’s remember that we don’t go empty handed.  No blank slate.  We don’t go without a history.  We take with us the full package of who we are in our flesh and blood lives.  Let’s remember to take with us those words of that Palestinian pastor, who told us that America is god, implying that we, her citizens, are children of this God.  The question for us is not whether or not we have power and authority.  That is verifiably true.  It’s not a matter of “If you are the son of God…” but “Since you are the Son of God…”  Since you have been granted this privilege, how will you use that power?

As the six of us sat around the table looking at this passage through racialized eyes, we came to see it as a parable on privilege.  The temptations that come with having power.  With having the social privilege that many white folks have in America.

Come with us into the wilderness, with Jesus, the son of God – ourselves sons and daughters of this god-like power that has cradled us from our birth.

For us at the table, the first temptation felt the hardest to crack, felt the most like simply a magic trick to prove something.  And a pretty sweet magic trick at that.  It’s hard to see what could be wrong with turning stones into bread, and it’s easy to see what could be right about it.  Surveys show… hungry people prefer bread over stones.  And there are plenty of hungry people.  If Jesus doesn’t know this already, he’ll discover it soon, when he finds himself back in the wilderness, this time accompanied by 5000+ hungry people and some nervous disciples.

Think of how many disadvantaged folks you could help if you could turn stones into bread.

So if this was truly a temptation, truly an inner, spiritual struggle Jesus faced down, what’s going on here and what does it have to do with race?

The best parallel our lunch group could come up with had to do with our attempts to be helpful, or to save others, that end up being harmful.

By pure coincidence, at the exact same time we were discussing this, another, much larger, lunch discussion was happening downtown, hosted by the Columbus Metropolitan Club.  The guest speaker was Robert Lupton, talking about his book with the loaded title: Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It.  Fortunately it was video recorded and posted on YouTube.

The event included thoughtful responses from the leaders of the Nationwide Foundation and the Community Shelter Board.  Although the exact language of bread wasn’t used, these leaders lamented that while foundations and organizations are quite skilled at distributing bread to folks in need, there has been little positive shift, and probably some backwards shift, in the plight of poor folks over the last few decades.  Race was not highlighted, but was a subtext throughout the discussion, especially with references to “inner-city neighborhoods.”  The key questions had to do with how people of means, people with power and the desire to be helpful, could work to truly empower others.  Turning stones into bread is easy.  Assisting others in setting up their own bakery co-op is a whole other story.

This raises important questions for how the church goes about mission.  There’s the saying about “leave more than you take.”  At a minimum, we can aim for our mission work to leave more dignity than we take.  Jesus says:  “Humans do not live on bread alone.”

In the second temptation, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers to crown Jesus as supreme ruler, with one little caveat.  He has to drink the kool aid, which I believe is the technical Greek translation.

This got us talking about hierarchy.  Racism, one person commented, is about power.  It’s about control and authority.  It sets itself up as a hierarchy, and the game plays itself out from there.  The goal of the game is to not be at the bottom of the hierarchy, and, if possible, to join the top.  These are the rules that merged the English and Scotts and Germans, Italians, and Irish into one socially constructed race, whites.  These are the rules that Mennonite immigrants from Europe have had trouble spotting because we have thought of ourselves as a persecuted people, and, without asking for it and many times not noticing it, are the recipients of white privilege.  These are the rules that pit minority communities against each other, scrapping for a limited set of resources and social prestige.  It’s a zero sum game.  If one group goes up, another goes down.  It’s ultimately a game in which everyone loses, the devil’s favorite kind.  Those at the top, the overadvantaged, have an unrealistic view of their own worth.  This is poisonous to a healthy spirituality.  Those at the bottom, the disadvantaged, have an underdeveloped sense of their own worth – Also poisonous to a healthy spirituality.  And the hierarchy persists through the generations, even if it doesn’t always break strictly along color lines.  One person in our group shared a phrase about how privilege works in the hierarchy, sure to stick in the minds of any baseball loving American.  “Some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.”

The tricky thing about this hierarchy is that it doesn’t need anyone to hate anyone else in order to persist.  This is key to the conversation going on now in our country.  Some folks are proposing that it’s possible to have racism without any racists.  Not that there aren’t racists anymore, but the hierarchy doesn’t need them to survive.  It just needs to keep transmitting psychological conditions and spiritual blindness from one generation to the next.  If everyone keeps playing their part, without questioning the part itself, it keeps going.

Several people in our group commented on how they have intentionally worked to break that generational transmission to their children.  It’s a wonderful goal of parenting to have your own children more aware of racial dynamics than you were at their age.

One way of reading Jesus’ ministry is as one who chose to reject hierarchy at every turn.  He ultimately shatters it from within, occupying its lowliest space, crucifixion, and issuing in an entirely different order, which he called the Kingdom of God, which plays by the rules of mercy and steadfast love.  In our baptismal vows we are opting out of the game of hierarchy, the devil’s game, and accepting the rules of the crucified and risen Christ to govern our lives.

The final temptation of Jesus evoked the most conversation for our group.  Jesus is taken to another high spot, the pinnacle of the temple.  The devil suggests that he jump, and quotes a scripture about God always protecting those who love God – Psalm 91.

We were intrigued with this idea of safety and invincibility.  One of the major ways privilege works in our culture is that you can do all kinds of stupid things and not fear long term consequences.  Or, much more subtly, and something that I’m still learning, privilege means that you can walk around with a general sense of safety.  People give you the benefit of the doubt rather than see you as a threat.  If anyone does harm you, the system is set up to get you help and punish the perpetrator.  Whether you jump or are pushed off the pinnacle, God will save you.

A couple in our lunch group attends toastmaster events, and shared that one of the gatherings was about the Black Code, and the conversation black parents inevitably have to have with their coming of age children, especially their sons.  “The conversation” involves a series of warnings and cautions that black males must be aware of.  I was going to list some of those cautions we talked about, but then on Friday I went with a group to the art gallery openings for Franklinton Fridays at the old repurposed warehouse at 400 West Rich.  And I saw a piece that laid out exactly the kinds of warnings that happen in the “The Conversation.”  Here it is:

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This is literally a matter of survival.  If not keeping one from being shot, keeping one out of prison.  Black males know that if they throw caution to the wind and hurl themselves into the arms of society, they’ll land hard on the pavement and might not get back up.

The devil told Jesus to take the plunge, because “God will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.”  Our group suggested a remix that many white folks live with.  “He will command his lawyers concerning you, to protect you.”  Go ahead and jump off the pinnacle, and enjoy your ride on the golden parachute conveniently located in your backpack.

Once again, Jesus rejects the trappings of privilege by quoting a different scripture.  “Don’t test God,” roughly equivalent to a more secularized warning. “Don’t tempt fate.”

If you are a white American, there’s a Palestinian pastor out there who wants you to know that you are a child of god, an inheritor of the power, the history, the culture of America.  If you are a Christian, you have accepted that you are a child of the God of Jesus Christ.  “Since you are a daughter of God…”  “Since you are a son of God…” how will you live with your power?  Let us go into the wilderness with Jesus.