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Peace,  (the Rev.) Matthew Dutton-Gillett

Giving Birth to God

mother-of-God-the-sign

Today is set aside in the church’s calendar to celebrate Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The title by which she is most well-known in the Western world is as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that has tended to lead to a preoccupation with Mary’s virginal status.  The Roman Catholic tradition followed this road to an interesting set of conclusions unique to that tradition and not shared by the rest of the Christian world:  the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which maintained that Mary was born “without sin”, thereby setting her apart from the rest of humanity, and the doctrine of the Assumption, which says that upon Mary’s death, her body was taken up or “assumed” into heaven.  All of these factors, at least two of which have to do with a desire to maintain Mary is some set of purity, have, I think, obscured what this feast day really calls us to reflect upon:  the courage required to give birth to God in the world.

In the Eastern Christian world, the most well-known title for Mary is the Greek word “theotokos”, which means God-bearer.  It is a title that does not emphasize Mary as a virgin, and the Eastern church deeply disagrees with the Roman Catholic idea of immaculate conception that separates Mary from the rest of the human race.  The title God-bearer emphasizes, instead, what Mary did:  she was the bearer of God incarnate in Christ into the world.   And, in a very real sense, her courage to do so is a model for the courage that all followers of Jesus are called to have, the courage to allow Christ to be born in us, and the courage to be bearers of the Christ into the pain and brokenness of the world.

To me, this seems like a particularly urgent calling in today’s world.  Across the country and around the world there is a rising tide of fear, hatred, prejudice, violence, nationalism, homophobia, and misogyny.   We stand facing environmental crises that are so overwhelming that many people are tempted to deny their existence.  It seems that a world we had thought to have made progress toward a more enlightened way of living is slipping back into darkness.   And, sadly, too many people are using religion as a justification for that slipping backward, and in doing so, are twisting our religious traditions out of shape.

So on this day when we remember the courage of Mary is saying “Yes” to becoming a bearer of God’s light into the world, let us also remember that this same invitation is given to us.  May we, too, have the courage to say yes.  May we have the courage that shines through in every word of Mary’s song:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

The Rotten Myth at the Heart of America

John-Birch-Society-American-Flag-hero-EIn the wake of the hatred, bigotry, and violence on display this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the wide perception that the President of the United States was slow to clearly condemn the white supremacist movement that lay behind it, the African American CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from a presidential advisory board related to American industry.  His conscience would not allow him to remain a member, and I respect him deeply for his decision.

In his statement, he included the following:  “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal (emphasis added).”

While I agree with the point Mr. Frazier is making, and while I fully endorse the idea that all people are created equal, I’m afraid that Mr. Frazier’s statement makes a critical error by saying that this notion that all people are created equal is an American ideal.  The sad truth, I’m afraid, is that it is not, and it really never has been.

Mr. Frazier is not the only one to make such statements in the aftermath of this weekend’s violence.  There have been many invocations from all sorts of different people extolling the American ideal of equality and its betrayal by the white supremacist movement.  But I think it is important that we not distort our own history, which is closely tied to our current reality.

If one were to ask where this alleged American ideal of universal equality is to be found, most people would point to the Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….”    At first glance, this statement would seem to support the alleged American ideal of universal equality.  Until one stops to consider what the signers of the Declaration understood the words “all men” to refer to.  First in their definition would have come white men.  And then, perhaps, white women — although, they did not see women as possessing the same rights as men.  For example, when the new republic was set up, women were not given the right to vote.  Their definition of “all men” did not include black men or women — and, indeed, some of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners, who did not see their slaves as really being fully human.

All of this points to one clear truth:   that the men who were most intimately involved in establishing the ideological and philosophical foundations of the American Revolution and of the republic which was born out of it did not believe in universal equality.  They did not believe that all human beings regardless of sex or color were all the same.  And realizing this should cause our mental image of early America as a light to the nations to flicker more than a little.

I do not wish to imply that the founders were not visionaries in their own way.  They imagined a form of government that had never existed before in our world, and they expanded the boundaries of democracy, self-governance, and opportunity further than they had ever been pushed before.  But they did not push them as far as they could have. For all their genius, for all their vision, they stopped short of enshrining any notion of universal human equality into our foundational documents.  And as the American project got underway, the notion that there were those who were not entitled to full equality lingered in American society.

The impact of the limits of human equality in American life erupted in the Civil War, whose conclusion was indeed the elimination of slavery, but not the abolition of the idea that African Americans were somehow less than white Americans. The result of the Civil War was, perhaps, that African Americans began to be seen more as human beings and less as property, but they were certainly seen as second-class human beings.  This legacy erupted again in the Civil Rights movement, whose conclusion convinced many white, liberal Americans that the problem of racism in America had been definitively dealt with — though I suspect non-white Americans could have told us that wasn’t true, and probably tried to do so, though most of us were no longer listening.

Now, in 2017, we see another eruption of the myth of American equality:  that there continue to be, in the heart of our nation, people who do not accept the idea that all people are created equal, and are prepared to loudly proclaim their belief that Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and others who do not look or act like themselves have no place among us.  They were not born with these beliefs.  They have been taught to believe these things, and that teaching follows a lineage that moves all the way back to the founding of the country, and of the failure of the American project to truly embrace the full equality of all.

So let us not say that universal equality is an American ideal.  It is not, and it never has been.  But that is not to say that we should not seek to make it an American ideal.  Just as there are many in this country who do not believe all people are equal, there are many who do.   Many more than lived in this country when it was founded.  But this will not be an easy goal to reach.  We must come to terms with our true legacy, which is one of exclusion.  We must come to terms with the limits of the vision on which America was founded.  We must learn to take from that vision what is true and lasting, and reject what needs to be cast aside.  We must begin the American project again, and dedicate ourselves to a proposition that is entirely absent from our founding documents:  that all people are truly created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Language Matters — We Shouldn’t Wait Until the Bullets Fly to Know That

Today’s shooting involving Republican members of Congress and some of their aides and friends at a small baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, is a terrible, detestable action.  All shootings are, and it was refreshing to see people from different places on the political spectrum come together at a human level to console and comfort each other and their families, and to rightfully condemn something for which there is never a legitimate excuse.  I suspect it will not be long before today’s incident will become a political football tossed back and forth in our country’s endless debate about guns.  But perhaps today’s incident, because it appears to be tied to politics, might give us a space to reflect for just a moment on something that probably contributed to what happened today.

For many years, now, we have lived in a climate of increasingly polarized politics.  Politicians and others of all political stripes have increasingly demonized those with whom they do not agree.  People have called their opponents names, they have suggested that their opponents are morally bankrupt, and some have even suggested that their opponents are not really human.    And, there have been suggestions by some — at time veiled, at times quite open — that the world would be better off if their opponents were dead.   And it appears that today, someone took that suggestion seriously.

Human beings are profoundly linguistic creatures.   Language fundamentally shapes and orders our reality.  And when the language of politics and public discourse becomes characterized by hatred and violence, then that discourse helps to shape a reality in which hatred and violence are seen as somehow acceptable.  That old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is wrong on a number of levels.  Violent, hateful names and words do hurt — and when we hear them so often that they begin to shape our reality, those words can be translated into actions.

Human beings have always had disagreements, and always will.  The American political landscape will always include disagreement and debate.  But it is one thing to disagree with someone, and another thing to cease to value them as human beings.  We live today in a culture that has been shaped too much by language that undermines the humanity of those with whom we disagree, and when we are able to stop seeing someone’s humanity, we can more easily decide to do them harm.

There have certainly been much worse shooting incidents in this country than the one we saw today.  But perhaps the fact that this particular incident was directed against members of Congress will cause our political establishment to take notice, and to realize that today’s incident is a symptom — a symptom of a culture of political discourse that gives permission to hate, to demonize, and, ultimately, to do violence.  Politicians bear a lot of responsibility in changing that political discourse.  But all of us, as citizens, share that responsibility, as well.

Ultimately, the heart of Christianity — and all religious traditions — is to bring about a transformation of the human person.  Whatever one’s religion or non-religion, the great spiritual task of every human being is to face the darker parts of ourselves and to bring them into the light.   When we become trapped in hateful, demonizing language, we not only impact the culture around us, but we also impact our own spiritual condition.  Often, we like to begin by trying to change others — something that we cannot easily do, if at all.  But we can change ourselves, we can recognize the negativity in us that spills out of us, and we can work on transforming that into something that shapes ourselves and the culture around us in positive ways.  The need to take that spiritual work seriously has never been more evident.

Paris, Climate Change, and the Elevation of Selfishness

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’   — Matthew 22:36-40

In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”   To understand the full implications of this teaching, we must recognize that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not a place where we go when we die, but rather, it is a state of being into which we are drawn through our following of Jesus, a state of being which alters all of our relationships — with ourselves, with others, with our world — in a Christ-like direction.   We must also appreciate that, in this teaching, Jesus elevates doing over believing.  One does not, he says, enter the state of being referred to by the kingdom of heaven just by calling Jesus “Lord” — which signifies adherence to a set of beliefs that make that title meaningful.   Rather, it is putting into action the values of the kingdom of heaven as one follows Jesus as Lord that brings one into the new set of transformative relationships that constitute entry into the kingdom.

It is important, I think, that we appreciate the full depth of this particular teaching of Jesus on this day when the President has withdrawn the United States from the landmark Paris Climate Treaty that was concluded among 195 countries two years ago.  Because many of those who have brought about that decision call Jesus “Lord.”  And yet, the justification provided for this decision would indicate that they are very far from the kingdom of heaven.

The justification given for withdrawing from the Paris Treaty is, in the end, about selfishness — which, of course, was the very argument that brought the current administration to power.  It all comes down to “America First” — and so it does not matter what the rest of the world thinks, nor does the health of our planet matter, nor does the well-being of the whole human community.  It only matters whether it serves our own narrow interests as Americans.   Putting aside the fact that, in the long run, the provisions of the Paris Treaty will aid the health of the planet and, thereby, serve our interest as human beings who live here, to put forth such an argument as the basis of exiting an international treaty is the very definition of selfishness, and caters to the basest of national instincts.  All of this is the culmination of years of skepticism about the science of climate change on the part of large parts of the American population, most of whom also accept a narrative which places science and religion in opposition to each other, which venerates ignorance above learning, and, as one politician proclaimed early this week, believes that if climate change is really happening, God will save us from it.

Has it not occurred to anyone that the gift of human intellect upon which science, and so much else, depends, is God’s way of saving us?

It seems necessary to offer a reminder that selfishness is not a Christian virtue.  The whole of Jesus’ life and teaching points to the exact opposite of selfishness, embracing the virtue of self-giving, and of putting others’ needs before our own.  In no way is there any justifiable Christian theology that supports this idea of “America First”,  no authentic Christianity that justifies putting the perceived, short-term self-interest of a few million people ahead of the well-being of an entire planet of billions.

To love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, is the basic ethical stance of the authentic Christian tradition.  It is the ethic that Jesus taught and on which he based his life.  It is the putting of that ethic into action that opens the doors of the kingdom of heaven, that brings us into the state of being that Jesus calls us to.  That ethic does not give us permission to love ourselves more than our neighbors, nor does it give us permission to adopt a narrow definition of “neighbor” that begins and ends at the American border.

I am not proud today to now be part of one of the few countries in the world that has turned its back on the biggest crisis to face humanity, choosing to hide behind the tribal wall of an increasingly ugly nationalism.  And I am angry to be connected with those who use the name of Jesus and the Christian tradition to defend the selfishness that nationalism promotes.

Jesus also said we must love our enemies — and that is hard to do on a day like today.  And I wonder how much love we will get from the rest of the world, when the United States has today become an enemy of the planet.

Let no one dare to say that what has been done today is somehow consistent with the Christian faith.  It is not.  It is simply being selfish.

And They Had Everything in Common: Re-Imagining God’s Dream for Humanity

On Sunday, May 7, I was invited to Preach at Stanford University’s Memorial Church in their regular Sunday service, University Public Worship.  That sermon is what follows.  Before you read it, I want to just make an observation about it.  The invitation to preach at Stanford came with an invitation to preach something challenging.  And I think this sermon takes that invitation seriously.  I am aware that, read through a certain lens, some of what I say in this sermon could be interpreted to suggest that people who voted for the current administration are somehow bad people.  That is not what I believe.  This sermon explores how the Christian movement is seen, particularly by young people — which seemed appropriate in a university setting.  It also explores the way in which voting patterns among the majority of white evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians in the last election contribute to that perception.  It also asks whether the priorities of the current administration are consistent with what we see Jesus doing and teaching in the gospels.  I would suggest that this is always an important question for religious people to be asking, Christian or otherwise, regardless of the party or administration in power.  I do not advocate, in any way, that any religion should dictate national policy.  But people who take their religion seriously cannot, it seems to me, keep that commitment completely separate from the public policy choices they would advocate.  

Scriptural Texts: Acts 2:42-47 & John 10:1-10

Over the years, I’ve been on the Stanford campus many times, and, as far as I can tell, there are no sheep at Stanford.  And there is no degree offered in the art of shepherding.   That, of course, is just a sign of what is true in our society generally:  namely, that very few of us know much about sheep or shepherds, and that the vast majority of us live at quite a distance from the kind of life that sheep and shepherding represent. The people of Jesus’ time lived much closer to the land.  Agricultural life was more of an immediate reality to them.  And so the metaphors of sheep and shepherds used in this morning’s Gospel would have been much more familiar.  But, for us, these metaphors are far less accessible.

About 30 years ago, I knew a priest who attempted to make these metaphors more alive for his congregation.  His name was Ted Rice, a now-retired Episcopal priest, and he actually had a brother who was a shepherd in New England.  Ted described what he witnessed of the relationship between his shepherd brother and his flock.  It so happened while Ted was visiting his brother, that there was a particular ewe who was having a great deal of difficulty giving birth.  Ted described how his brother had stayed with the ewe throughout the night, tending to her, keeping her calm, even singing to her.  His brother knew exactly what to do, how to reach in and gently turn the lamb and, ultimately, make it possible for the young sheep to be born, without endangering its mother’s life.  Ted was deeply moved by the tender relationship between his brother and the sheep, by the obvious love that bound them to each other, by the degree to which his brother placed the needs of his flock before his own.  As I listened to Ted describe this, what came to mind for me was the image of the shepherd as midwife, one who attends another in order to help bring to birth new life.

So when I hear Jesus being cast in the role of the shepherd, I always find myself returning to this story of Ted’s brother, and the connection it suggests between the image of the shepherd and the image of the midwife.  Jesus, it seems to me, is trying to bring forth new life in and among those who are his followers.  He comes to us as shepherd and midwife to bring a new way of living and being to birth, and he entrusts this same mission to the community his followers founded, to that community that we call “church”.  Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, in the 21st chapter, the Risen Christ walks with the disciple Peter on the beach and says to Peter, who represents the church as a whole, that a consequence of loving Jesus is that Peter – and the community he and the others are about to create – is to take on the mission of feeding and tending the sheep.  In other words, to do for others what Jesus has done for them.

And so, centuries later, it seems legitimate to ask the question, is the church living up to this calling?  Are we, in our various Christian communities, helping to bring to birth new ways of living and being as Jesus did in his own life and work?

As I survey the state of Christianity today, I have to say that I think the short answer to that question is, much of the time, “No.”  One sign of this is the image that Christianity currently enjoys in the public square, particularly among younger people.   Studies have shown that among people 16 to 29 who do not go to church, Christianity is frequently described as “judgmental”, “hypocritical”, and “old fashioned.”  When you combine the low impression of Christianity among increasing numbers of young people with the degree to which that same demographic tended to favor candidates like Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson in the last election, what emerges, I think, is a view of the church as an institution which does not challenge the status quo of our world but is seen to reinforce it, often at the expense of those among us who, in some way or other, would be considered vulnerable.  In other words, the church is often seen as supporting the world’s ways of living and being, rather than helping to bring to birth something new.

This view of the church stands as quite a contrast to the image of the Christian community that we catch a glimpse of in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts.  Let’s listen again to the way that early community is described: “All who believed were together and had all things in common:  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This description is of a church that has not yet become an institution, a community of Jesus’ followers who enjoy no privileged position in society, who have no power at all, who are a small minority with respect to both the Jewish community around them and the larger Roman Empire of which Judea had become a part.  What shapes the life of that community is set forth in the first line of the passage:  they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  And the results of that devotion are made clear when it says, “Awe came upon everyone…they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.”   This certainly sounds to me like a community in which something new is being born, a community that is adopting a new way of living and being that is based not on status or wealth, but on the notion that baptism is the great leveler, that being in Christ places everyone on the same footing.  It is a community that provides an alternative to the social structures of the time, in which status and wealth matter very much, and in which the poor and the vulnerable are often marginalized and left to fend for themselves.  And it seems to have been deeply attractive.

This early form of Christian community, and others that sprang up in the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were alternative communities whose values, in fact, undermined those of the prevailing culture.  And it was not so much an alternative to Jewish culture out of which, after all, Christianity was born, but an alternative to Roman culture, particularly as increasing numbers of new Christians were not drawn from Judaism but from the Roman, Gentile world.  We see this very much in the writings of St. Paul, who – though he was very concerned about figuring out how to get his fellow Jews to become followers of Jesus – was principally focused for most of his life on planting churches among the Gentiles.  Remember that Paul’s writings are the earliest to be found in the New Testament, and in them we find the language used by the early church to talk about Jesus.

The Roman Catholic priest and scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has argued that this language – the terms “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Kingdom of God”, “Savior” – is all drawn from the language that Romans used to talk about their emperor and his empire.  Indeed, while we are accustomed to speaking of the “Roman Empire”, Romans of the time were more accustomed to thinking of it as the “Kingdom of Rome.”  Caesar was Lord and Savior, and the term “son of god” was part of his title.  In his letters, Paul takes all of this language and applies it to Jesus – clearly establishing Jesus as a rival to Caesar, and the Christian community as an alternative to  Roman society.  For Paul and for early Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the world, which pointed to a way of living and being that challenged the values of the kingdom of Rome. Caesar’s titles were emptied of the power that they were meant to convey, and their meaning redefined in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which revealed that real power lay in sacrificial self-giving, in radical love, in embracing the inherent beloved-ness of every person as a child of God.  Far from supporting the status quo, far from being allied with wealth and power, the early church was truly a countercultural presence beneath Roman society, a “new thing” coming into the world that was most attractive to those who benefited the least from the prevailing social norms and structures, as well as to those who may have benefited from them, but who could see the injustices inherent within them.

All of this, of course, changed in the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine had his mysterious conversion experience, part of which was a belief that the Christian Christ was the one to whom he owed thanks for his decisive victory over his brother, which allowed him to consolidate his power.  In what was really a remarkably short span of time, the Christian community moved from being this alternative, even subversive presence beneath Roman society to being an institution that was on its way to enjoying great privilege and power at the heart of Roman society.  The church, over time, certainly changed Rome, but Rome also changed the church.  Gone, for example, was the early church’s deep commitment to pacifism, which could not be maintained once Christianity became the official religion of the greatest military power in the ancient world.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity was a decisive historical turning point, and it set Christianity on a path that transformed it from being an alternative form of community that nurtured new forms of relationship to being a cultural institution that blessed the powerful, reinforced prevailing social, cultural, and economic norms, and helped keep women and the poor in their places.

Today, we are part of a Christian movement that has traveled a very long way from what is described in the book of Acts.   We are not seen as the shepherd-midwife who nurtures new forms of relationship and works to help bring to birth new life, but rather as that ancient relative at the family gathering who laments the loss of the way things used to be and occasionally yells at the neighbors to get off the lawn.  Increasingly, we no longer enjoy the “goodwill of the people” because they sense that we have somehow lost the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching.

And that perception has only been reinforced in the last election cycle.  Last November, 81% of white evangelicals and 50% of white mainline Protestants voted for the administration that is now in power.   And setting aside the polarizing personalities that are a part of that administration and its congressional majority, let’s just consider a list of some of the policy positions that they are advocating:  a radical reduction in the numbers of immigrants and refugees admitted to the country; a construction of a physical wall along our border with Mexico; a reform of the health care system that most analysts agree would serve to favor the healthy and wealthy and disadvantage the poor, the old, and the sick; reducing or eliminating funding for the arts and other public cultural entities while dramatically increasing military spending; rolling back environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Treaty;  fundamentally changing current trade agreements or withdrawing from them all together.

None of these policy positions point to the birth of anything new, nor do they suggest new forms of being and relationship.   Instead, they involve a reassertion of the past and a denial of new realities that are emerging in our culture and in our world.  It is exactly this that the majority of white Christians voted for, and exactly this that a majority of young people voted against.  And those who are the principal protagonists of these policies mostly promote them under a mantel of faith in Jesus and adherence to Christianity.   And so Jesus and the church are put forth as the allies of the politically powerful and as blessing the policies that they choose to promote.

But none of this is really found in the gospels, in what we see Jesus doing and saying.  The community that Jesus comes to shepherd and to midwife is made up mostly of people who lived at the margins of their society, of people who had been cast out by the majority for one reason or another.   If you look at the healing ministry of Jesus, which was such a big part of what he was doing, notice that the illnesses he heals are of a very particular sort.  In almost every case, Jesus’ heals people of illnesses that had caused them to be cast out of their communities, because of fear and stigma that was attached to them in the ancient world.  He heals them, thereby nullifying the thing that caused them to be cast out, and then he returns them to their communities.  And when they return, they return as agents of transformation for those communities, because the people who had cast them out have to receive them back, and to do so requires them to change their point of view, to see these formerly cast out people in a new way.  Jesus does not build walls between people, but breaks them down.  Jesus does not seek to reinforce systems that protect the wealthy and the healthy, but seeks to change those systems, to force them to include the poor and the sick, the disadvantaged and the outcast.  Jesus does not encourage us to be preoccupied with our own desire for security, but invites us to step out of our need for security to discover that beyond the borders of our fear lie other human beings, just like ourselves, who are simply trying to live their lives in peace, and who simply want others to see their humanity.

Here’s what it comes down to, I think:  the default mode of an unredeemed and untransformed humanity is to live with a sense of fear and scarcity, and on the basis of these, to draw lines and create systems that keep everyone in their place.  Those who have the means to protect themselves and prosper do so; those who do not suffer the consequences.  What we often fail to realize is that living this way disfigures the humanity of all of us, planting seeds of war and violence everywhere.   The advantaged struggle to keep their advantage, and the disadvantaged struggle to gain some advantage.  The church has too often been a partner in this way of living, blessing prosperity as some kind of sign of the divine favor and assuring the disadvantaged that their reward is in heaven.

But as Christians, we are not supposed to be content with humanity’s default mode.  We are supposed to be interested in humanity’s redemption and transformation.   And as more and more people question the veracity and efficacy of the Gospel, as it is made known through our preaching and practice, we are challenged to recover the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching, to rediscover our role as shepherds and midwives who are called to bring to birth new patterns of relationship like those that existed in the earliest Christian communities.   We are called to re-imagine the kingdom of God, God’s dream for humanity, through that key line in the reading from Acts: “And they had all things in common.”   As human beings, we do, indeed, have all things in common, from this planet that we share to the societies of which we are a part.  It is only when we are able to see the common ways in which we are tied together, the lines of connection that bind us to one another, that we are truly able to realize God’s dream for God’s people.   We must nurture what Jesus seeks to nurture in us:  sacrificial self-giving, radical love, and the recognition of the beloved-ness of every human being.

If we fail to live up to that challenge, then we become the thieves and robbers who protect some of the sheep while leaving others vulnerable.  But if we can live into that challenge, then we become like Jesus himself:  a gateway through which we can re-imagine our own humanity, and the human community of the world.

Breaking the Illusion of Separateness, Overcoming the Power of Death: An Easter Sermon

 

 Some of you – perhaps many of you – may have heard the story of Norma.   Norma turned 90 in 2015, a year that should have been one of celebration for having reached such a distinguished age.  But it turned out to be a very difficult year for Norma and her family.  In the midst of the year, Norma’s husband of 67 years passed away suddenly.  And two days after his death, Norma was diagnosed with uterine cancer.   Her doctors explained to her all the treatment options, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  But Norma decided to skip treatment all together.  “I’m ninety years old,” she said, “I’m hitting the road.”

And so in August of 2015, Norma, together with her son and his wife, and their dog, did exactly that:  they set out in their RV to see as much of the country as they could.

And a great trip she had.  She saw “the Rocky Mountains, visited National Parks, strolled through New Orleans, and [even took] part in a Native American ceremony.”  (Distractify.com) When she got to Florida, she fulfilled a life-long dream of riding in a hot air balloon, and on another occasion, tried her first mimosa.  And, as one journalist reported, she also had her first fist-bump with a girl she met on the street.  She went whale watching, and got her first view of the Grand Canyon.  She had her first pedicure.  Her family created the Driving Miss Norma Facebook page, that garnered a following of more than half a million people from around the world.   Her story became an inspiration for many.

Over the course of a year, Norma and her family traveled some 13,000 miles, staying in over 75 places in 32 states.  In October of last year, at the age of 91, Norma died in the RV that had become her home and her window on the world.  Her memorial service was held in Washington state – on the other side of the country from Northern Michigan, where her trip had begun.

Norma’s story felt compelling to a lot of people.  And why?   I think it was the nature of the choice that she made.  When Norma was confronted with the reality of death, with the truth of her own mortality, she did not choose to try to hold onto her life as tightly as she could.  Instead, she embraced what was coming, and in the face of death, she chose to live her life, embracing what was left of it as fully as she could.  More fully, in fact, than she ever had.

It was a choice that one might not have expected of Norma.  Her son described her to a reporter as someone who had very much lived in the shadow of his father.  When he would call his parents, he said, his mom was a silent presence on the phone.  It was his father who did all the talking.  In fact, before embarking on this RV journey together, he had felt that he hadn’t known his mother very well.  Since getting married and settling down in Northern Michigan, she rarely went very far from her home.  She had never even been to Wisconsin, the neighboring state.  It seems to me that when Norma’s doctors announced to her the news of her diagnosis, she was pulled out of her normal frame of reference, of her normal way of thinking about things, and pulled into an entirely new consciousness in which, suddenly, staying safely close to home no longer made any sense.  She saw herself, it seems, being invited into a journey.  And she chose to say, “Yes.”   She chose to leave behind what she knew and walk boldly into the unknown, trusting that some sort of new life – however briefly it would be experienced — was to be found there.   We could call that a moment of grace.  It’s almost as if, in her doctor’s office, Norma heard God calling her name for the first time, and hearing that, she awakened to new possibilities.

To see Norma’s story in this way is to say that, while it is very different in its details, it is essentially the same kind of story that we hear in the Gospel for this morning, John’s story of how the Risen Christ becomes known and announced.   The center of John’s story is not really Jesus, but Mary Magdalene, a woman who accompanied Jesus during his ministry.  There has been much speculation over the centuries regarding the nature of the relationship between Mary and Jesus, and during the Middle Ages, Mary came to be regarded as a prostitute, a woman of questionable moral character – a claim that has absolutely no supporting evidence.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned at least 12 times in the New Testament, more than most of the apostles, and is described by both Luke and Mark as a woman from whom seven demons were cast out by Jesus.  Christian texts from the third century suggest that her status as an apostle rivaled that even of Peter.  In fact, there are non-scriptural texts that depict Mary as having understood Jesus better than the guys did, and that suggest she assumed the role of a teacher of the remaining disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Regardless of what we make of these traditions, all four of the gospels include Mary among the first witnesses to the Risen Christ and John makes her the one person to whom the Risen Christ is revealed first of all.

In telling this story, John seems to be trying to give some idea of the emotional space in which Mary found herself just before the Risen Christ is revealed to her, telling us that after Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” had gone back home, not knowing what to make of the empty tomb, Mary remained outside the tomb, weeping.  She is, of course, grieving.  Staring into the emptiness of that tomb, having witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross only days before, must have been like staring into the face of death itself.  In her mind, death had taken her beloved Jesus from her.   Whatever the nature of her relationship with Jesus was, she certainly loved him as a teacher, as someone who had come into her life and decisively changed it, who had perhaps given her a reason for being at a time in her life when she felt utterly lost.  This man was now gone, swallowed up by death, and I can imagine that she must have felt herself to have been returned by this tragedy to that lost place, wondering what her life was now supposed to be about.

As she stood in this space, overwhelmed by the power of death, where everything seemed to be coming to an end and falling apart, the Risen Christ comes to her.  She cannot at first recognize him for who he is, because she is stuck in a place of death and Christ is coming toward her from a place of life. She cannot see Jesus in front of her until he calls her by name, and in hearing the Divine utter her name, suddenly she was pulled out of her normal way of thinking, pulled out of the power of death and pulled into a completely new frame of reference, one in which death loses its power and its finality.  Mary is offered a grace-filled invitation to let go of a life dominated by the power of death and instead embark on a new journey in which she embraces life in all its fullness.

And if even some of the traditions that arose in the early church with respect to Mary are true, then she certainly accepted that invitation whole-heartedly, becoming a woman who proclaimed the gospel in word and deed, with wisdom and insight.  Jesus, who had changed her life once already during his earthly life and ministry, changed it again when she met him as the Risen Christ.

Norma and Mary are two very different women, who lived in very different times.  Yet they both had an experience of standing before the reality of death and being invited by the Risen One to refuse death the power it desires, and the fear that comes with it, and, instead, allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the mystery of life as it is given by God.  Their decision to accept that invitation changed both of them in wonderful and amazing ways, and made them powerful and inspirational witnesses to others.

It is this grace-filled space of being overwhelmed by the mystery of the life that God gives to us that I think is where the true celebration of Easter is to be found.  As we gather this morning, we are tempted to think that we are celebrating an event of the distant past, to think of this day only as a time to remember the Resurrection of Jesus and give thanks for it.  But the events of Jesus’ life, as unique and unrepeatable as they may be in their details, are always meant to point beyond themselves, to reveal not simply the way in which God worked in the life of Jesus centuries ago, but to reveal the way in which God seeks to work in all of our lives all the time.  The New Testament is filled with language that talks about Christians being “in Christ” and acquiring the “mind of Christ.”   All of this language is meant to point us toward the deep truth that what God is doing in Jesus is what God is always doing everywhere, all the time.

Which means that Resurrection is not just a one-off event in the life of Christ, but is a dynamic reality in our own lives, a reality that seeks to change the way we see and interact with the world.  As we sit stuck in the power of death, the Risen Christ continues to come toward us from the power of life, continuing to call us each by name, seeking to awaken us to the divine presence that is right in front of us.

The great 20th century monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, had his own experience of awakening, which he describes in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  He writes,

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . .  This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . .  I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.   As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.  And if only everybody could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Merton’s experience of “waking from a dream of separateness” is the sort of awakening that happened, I think, to Norma in her doctor’s office, and to Mary in the garden.  For Norma, for Mary, and for Merton, they were – each in their different moments – delivered from the power of death into the power of life:  the inexhaustible, overwhelming divine life in which we are all held, in which we are all connected to each other, in which – as Merton so beautifully describes it – we are all walking around, shining like the sun.

We human beings live much of the time dominated by the power of death.  Whenever we act out of hopelessness rather than hope, we are being run by the power of death.  Whenever we act out of fear of others, we are being run by the power of death.  Whenever we place the safety and security of a few above the well-being of the whole, we are being run by the power of death.  The power of death makes us selfish, the power of death makes us fearful, the power of death makes us feel that we must grab as much as we can for ourselves because there is not enough to go around.  The power of death sees every ending, every difficult point of transition, as threatening, and desperately tries to hold on to what has been out of a fear of what might be.  Ultimately, it is the power of death that closes borders, launches missiles, denies human rights, and makes judgments about people based on whatever makes them different.  It is the power of death that generates the illusion of separateness, giving us permission to withhold our compassion from those who need it most, and convincing us that we must live at the expense of others; that this is the way life is supposed to be.  It is this power that crucified Jesus, and it is this power that God exposes as a fraud on this Day of Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene has been called in the Christian tradition the “apostle to the apostles”, because she it was who first conveyed the news that Christ was alive to the 11 remaining male disciples of Jesus, who acquired the title “apostle” after their own experiences of the Risen Christ, for which Mary prepared them.  The word “apostle” means “witness”, and those who bear the title “apostle” are those who are able to see life, and to interact with the world, through the lens of the Resurrection, those who are able to bear witness of the good news of God’s abundant life to others.  Apostles are people who have been delivered from the power of death to embrace the fullness of life, who see that all people shine like the sun.  Apostles are people who, as Merton says, recognize the immense joy of being human, a joy so powerful that they cannot be overwhelmed by the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition.

Our world needs such apostles.  Our world needs people who can reach across dividing lines in the name of a shared humanity, in the name of the one life that God gives to each of us, out of the simple joy of having been gifted with this amazing human existence.  When we are able to see the world through the lens of Resurrection, we are able to rejoice in the humanity of all people.  And when we are overwhelmed by that immense joy, when we see the divine light shining in others, then we cannot ignore the world’s suffering and sorrow, we cannot ignore its injustices and its violence.  But we can engage them from a place of life rather than death, allowing our voices to become the voice of Christ who calls our fellow human beings by name, and seeks to awaken the whole world from the dream of separateness and the power of death.

We gather today to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, but in doing so, we celebrate the possibility of Resurrection for us all.   Just as the Risen Christ came to Mary filled with the power of life, so the Risen Christ comes to us.   Just as Norma perceived a calling coming toward her, inviting her to set aside her fear and set out joyfully into the larger world so does that calling come to us.  Just as Thomas Merton suddenly saw the oneness of humanity as the illusion of separateness dropped away, so does the Risen Christ seek to draw us away from that illusion.

May we go forth from this place today deeply aware of how we shine like the sun .  When we leave here today, may we find ourselves standing firmly at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, the corner of life and death, and may we have the courage, the strength, and the grace to joyfully choose life – for us, for our planet, and for all people.

 

 

 

 

Ashes, Tough Language, Hardened Exteriors

Ash Wed Heart“Lamenting our sins”, “acknowledging our wretchedness”, “contrite hearts”, “I have been wicked from my birth”, “turn from wickedness…and live”.   These are just some of the phrases that are a part of The Episcopal Church’s liturgy for today, Ash Wednesday.  These, and many others in today’s liturgy, don’t sit all that comfortably in my theological perspective.  Heard in a certain way, they seem to point people toward feelings of shame and unworthiness — something that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have often been accused of nurturing in unhealthy ways.  And, in my own explorations and reflections, I have concluded that God is not a God of shame (click here to see an earlier post on this topic).

But, this language also does serve a purpose — part of which is, indeed, to make us uncomfortable.    I think that often, when we encounter a day like Ash Wednesday that offers us this kind of tough language, we are not encountering language that is meant to shame us but, rather, language that is meant to wake us up, to get through our hardened exteriors in order to get our attention.   The language of Ash Wednesday is meant to do just this, I think:  to wake us up, to get our attention, and to shift our focus.

This year, Ash Wednesday comes in the midst of a cultural period in which we Americans are hearing a lot of triumphalist language.  We are being called to be “great again”, we are being called to put ourselves first, we are being offered a vision of our lives in which Americans are the ultimate “in” people, and everyone else is “out.”   Including Americans who don’t measure up to the triumphalist image.    Americans have long had a lingering superiority issue, and it has been brought to the forefront in a big way.

But this is also a manifestation of something that is not uncommon among human beings.  We are quick to put each other into categories, we are swift to make judgements, and very often, rather than dealing with the person who is actually in front of us, we end up dealing with the image of what we have judged that person to be.   Many people have superiority issues — they want to be seen as better than others in some way.  Some people have the opposite problem:  they constantly see themselves as worse than everyone else.  Life is conceived of as a great competition in which there are always winners and losers.

The language of Ash Wednesday seeks to break all of this apart by reminding us that, in the end, we are each and all just human beings, trying to make our way in the world, and that each of us faces limits — the ultimate limit being, of course, our lifespan on this earth.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These words, given as ashes are ‘imposed’ upon the forehead, are the central words around which Ash Wednesday, and the whole Lenten season it inaugurates, turn.   They are words that are meant to equalize:  regardless of how better or worse than others we think we are, in the end, we are all the same:  we are all human, we are all given the same regard by God, and we are each just trying to do the best we can.

There is a great freedom in realizing this truth.  There is a great freedom and relief in having a space opened before us in which we are no longer competing, no longer measuring ourselves against others.   It is the space into which God always invites us, the space of belovedness.     That unconditional belovedness of God that makes it safe to be who we are.  And whether the world regards us as successes or failures becomes irrelevant.

Sometimes it takes tough language to make us realize this.   Ash Wednesday offers us both that challenge and that opportunity.