“The Government and Us” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 22nd, 2017. (Readings for 24A: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22)
33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’
33:13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
33:14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
33:15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.
33:16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
33:17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
33:18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
33:19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
33:20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
33:21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;
33:22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;
33:23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
96:1 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
96:2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
96:3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
96:4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.
96:5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
96:6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
96:7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
96:8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.
96:9 Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
96:10 Say among the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”
96:11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
96:12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
96:13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly
1:3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,
1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,
1:7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
1:8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
1:9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,
1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I want to begin by saying a quick word about our lesson from Exodus today. The Hebrew scriptures are composed of the writings of many different traditions. One of the earliest is what’s called the Yahwist tradition and it’s often been presented as a primitive tradition because God is often portrayed in very human terms. But I want to suggest that, just as scholars were so often wrong when they told us indigenous peoples really thought different aspects of creation, the sun, the moon, different animals were Gods, rather than different expressions or reflections of God, so too, I think they are wrong to think that just because people used human terms to talk about God that they really thought of God as a kind of human being. The period of the Yahwist movement, much like the period of the Jesus movement or the Irish renaissance, was a period marked by an incredible breakthrough in terms of the vision and understanding of God. It marked a period in which people had a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of God and spirituality than most of us have today. So rather then thinking that people then were stupider, or more superstitious, or living in a completely different world than we are, I’d encourage you to be open to the possibility that when they tell stories about the divine in very personal/human terms, like a God who walks in a garden in the cool of the day, I’d encourage you to hear it not literally, but rather as a metaphorical way of speaking about their experience of the divine and what it has taught them.
In terms of the Divine approaching us in a very human way, last week I talked about humor as one way the divine talks to us, so I don’t want you to miss the humor in our lesson from Exodus today. Today we hear that the great leader Moses is apparently not satisfied with God’s presence and the renewal it brings, so he asks to see God’s glory. God response is as follows:
You stand on this rock. I will make all my goodness pass before you, but I will also cover your eyes for you cannot see my face, for no one can see my face and live. After I have passed by you can look and — you can see my back-side.
If this is based on a Yawhist story I’m sure the original used a less polite word for the word “back-side.”
I love that. Here we are created in the image of God, created little less than angels, and yet in case we’re getting too full of our selves, in case, we’re beginning to confuse ourselves with God, the Yahwist says we are only able to handle the equivalent of the back-side of God’s glory. And yet they also say that even if we are only able to handle the back-side of God’s glory, even that experience of the divine presence leaves us –like the trees of the forest–shouting with joy.
Now I think we need to draw on the divine presence and the rest and renewal it give us if we are going to be able to address the questions raised by our gospel today about our relationship to the government, which in our gospel today is represented by the image of Caesar.
Jesus’ enemies are hoping to catch him in a trap by either having him declare his opposition to paying taxes to Caesar, in which case he can be arrested and killed, or have him call for paying taxes to Caesar, in which case the crowds will turn against him. That’s why his enemies come to him praising him as a “sincere” truth teller who “does not show partiality towards people.” ie. whose not afraid of Caesar or the crowds.
Jesus gets out of this trap by asking them to: “show me the coin used for the taxes.” When they do–he asks “”Who head is this, and whose title” to which they have to answer the emperor’s. Now two things about this that all of Jesus’ listens would have understood. First, one of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” This is why Jewish coins didn’t have images of humans on them for that was considered idolatrous–turning a human being into a God. Secondly, not only did Roman money have the image of Caesar on them, but they were inscribed with the words “Augustus Caesar Son of God.” In other words, they proclaim Caesar to be a God at a time the worship of idols was understood by the Jewish people to be incompatible with the worship of God.
Having revealed Caesar’s idolatrous claims Jesus then says they should “give to Caesar what is due to Caesar and to God what is due to God.” Since, in the Hebrew understanding, “all the earth and all that therein is” is God’s, it means that Cesar has no claims on us, except in so far as they are part of what we owe to the Lord, which clearly does not include honoring Caesar’s idolatrous claim to being a God.
Jesus suggests it’s not a matter of whether it is lawful or not to pay taxes to Cesar, but a much more complicated question of which of Caesar’s claims are legitimate. All that seems very straight forward, and yet, through so much of Christian history these questions have been ignored and instead Christians have acted as if they should obey their governmental leaders. In the process, at the behest of those leaders, Christians have been involved in every kind of evil you can imagine: murder, theft, rape, exploitation, oppression, the desecration of people and the environment.
As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, we are willingly do all kinds of evil in the name of obedience to our government that we would never consider doing as individuals. Evil happens when we disconnect from our hearts and minds and feelings and consciousness and much of the great evil we see happens in our world happens when we disconnect from them in the name of obedience to governmental leaders. We also know from Stanly Milgram’s experiments that most of us feel such a compulsion to obey authority figures that we are willing to harm others even if we don’t want to, even if we believe it is wrong, if we are ordered to do it by authority figures.
How did Christians get to this place? I have more questions than answers. Part of it comes from obedience to Biblical texts like the text we find in Romans chapter thirteen. I want you to listen to it as if you are a Christian living in Nazi Germany, whose been ordered to go into the army to invade other countries, or into the police force to persecute political dissidents, Jews, gay, and handicapped people.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)
Now at the time Paul wrote those words Nero had apparently recently become the new Roman emperor. Maybe there was still hope he would turn out to be a decent ruler, we now know he turned out to become one of the most monstrous of the Roman emperors.
Let’s also be clear, despite how clear and simple the text sounds, it’s very unclear what Paul is saying. This is the same Paul who in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25 reports that “five times I have received …. the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned.” I don’t know what justice system stoned Paul, but one suspects that the forty lases given by Jewish authorities and the being beaten with rods, which was one of the punishments Roman authorities meted out, didn’t happen because Paul was being obedient to the authorities. Rather one suspects that Paul responded to the authorities the way Peter and the Apostles did when they were ordered to stop preaching about how the authorities killed Jesus and they responded by saying “We must obey God rather than men. ” (Act 5:29)
How do we get from Jesus’ teaching that obedience to God comes before obedience to authorities to this apparent call to be “to be subject to the authorities,” or is the call to be subject to the authorities not, as so many came to believe, the same thing as obeying them? I don’t know, again I have more questions then answers.
What I do know is that though, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that those who treat the written word like the law are forfeiting salvation, Christians so often do treat the Bible in an idolatrous kind of way such that texts like this, that I suspect for Paul were nothing more than a call to avoid unnecessary trouble with the authorities, have been turned into texts of terror that can turn the Christian faith into something that is monstrous.
Christianity is the only world religion whose founders, including Jesus, Peter, Paul and many of the apostles, were executed by the state. This is not an accident. We also know that somehow, somewhere, along the line, that their holy disobedience that meant, for example, that no Christians were willing to serve in the army in the early church, came to be replaced by an idolatrous obedience such that most Christians in Nazi Germany felt obligated to fight for Hitler citing texts like Roman Thirteen. If Christian teachings seem to tell you to fight for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, it’s hard to imagine a situation where you wouldn’t obey your governmental leaders. Thus we can see it is not an accident that Christians have fought on almost every side of every war since the early church making a total mockery of the whole concept of the body of Christ. This is why, after World War II, more and more Christians began to realize that we cannot, in the name of obedience to governmental authorities, sacrifice our faith, values, and consciences. We cannot claim to be following in the way of Jesus and be in a simple obedience relationship with Caesar.
But friends, the implications of what we face for our faith go far deeper than simply whether we adhere to, or reject, certain claims the government makes on us. Partly as a result of Christian thought many of us have come to see democracy as the best way to promote God’s commonwealth and protect human rights. Yet we are now in a time, when like the periods leading up to World War I and World War II, where we are witnessing an increasing pessimism about the collective capacity of human being to govern ourselves and work together for the common good. Certainly, there is much evidence of our collective failures, but the despair and cynicism that is sweeping the globe, that promotes distrust of public institutions and leadership, and that is leading people to put their trust in strong men, is not only not going to lead us to a place of greater justice, equality, and compassion, but is instead leading to disaster.
So the challenges facing us today go far beyond the vision of protest movements that focus on how to resist unjust governmental actions, to the question of how, in the midst of this time, we can act to overcome the kind of despair and cynicism about the human capacity to work for the common good, which is fundamentally undermining our ability to respond to the challenges and evils we need to confront.
One of the revolutionary aspects of the early Jesus movement was it’s affirmation of human dignity and it’s belief in the capacity for human beings to be ambassadors for God, agents of God’s commonwealth, here on earth. How do we, in our time, be those ambassadors to help people remember their divine nature, their divine inheritance? This is something I think we really need to be wrestling with and I believe that if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.
Today’s Scripture Readings:
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
nd now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
Qui regis Israel
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
8 You have brought a vine out of Egypt; *
you cast out the nations and planted it.
9 You prepared the ground for it; *
it took root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered by its shadow *
and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.
11 You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea *
and its branches to the River.
12 Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?
13 The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.
14 Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
…. we must take
The utmost care and kindness
In all things
Breathe in knowing we are made of all this
And breathe, knowing we are truly blessed,
because we were born and die soon within
a true circle of motion.
Like eagle, rounding out the morning inside us
We pray that it will be done
In beauty, in beauty.
“Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo (Crazy Brave, p. 154)
In the Navajo prayer we said today we hear: “It is finished in beauty.” My prayer and hope is that the human story will be finished in beauty, but at this point it seems so improbable.
In our gospel today I hear the first part of our story. God creates an earthly paradise. There is abundance for all, but a spirit of greed, a spirit of fear, seizes some who then claim this paradise as private property-as their property. God gave us the ten commandments we heard today, clear instructions on how we might live together without harming one another, but the privateers declared those rules did not apply to them, at least not in relationship to peoples not of their tribe. God sent the prophets to tell them this is not the way, but they beat, stoned and killed the prophets. God’s own son comes to try to reason with them, but they kill him.
Friends, at times in feels like we are living in a huge graveyard. Those who have sought to privatize the commonwealth have left our country soaked in blood: the blood of Native peoples, the blood of African peoples, the blood of Asian people’s, the blood of Latin Peoples, the blood of poor Europeans. The cultural, psychological and spiritual consequences of this devastation are enormous.
One of the consequences is the spirit of narcissism that this past week we saw literally killing us. I keep hearing the commentators asking why Stephen Paddock murdered and maimed so many in Las Vegas. For me, like most forms of terrorism, this terrible crime has the Spirit of narcissism written all over it –the idea that I’m the only one who is important, that I don’t have to empathize with others because everyone else exists only for my own little drama.
Las Vegas is horrific, but so is the fact that by the late 1970s the major oil companies in our country understood what all the carbon they were putting into our environment was going to do to our planet so they began to make plans to build oil rigs that could handle the seas when they were ten or twenty feet higher. Just as our cigarette companies were among the first to prove cigarettes caused cancer, but engaged in a disinformation campaign so they could keep selling cigarettes, so too, our oil companies then began a campaign so they can keep selling their oil for decades longer–even though they knew it would mean such horrible damage to our planet and that a huge percentage of the earth’s population will soon be climate refugees–beginning with the poor. Already we see people from those countries who have done little or nothing to contribute to carbon pollutions now being driven from their homes by the rise in temperatures, floods and draughts. Isn’t the collective narcissism of our oil company executives and what they have intentionally done to our planet, or what our government is doing by pulling out of climate agreements, when our country has been by far the worst contributor of carbon into the environment, just as evil, or more evil, than what that ghost did in Las Vegas?
Narcissism is one way people respond to living in a world of despair. It is a way of disconnecting from others and cutting ourselves off from our feelings to keep from feeling rage, sorrow, and inner emptiness. It is a spiritual illness that, if it goes untreated, leads to death and now threatens the life of our planet.
If narcissism is a path of disconnection what we find in the work of Native American poet, story teller, musician, composer, and, for me, powerful liberation theologian, Joy Harjo, is a vision of a way of connection, a vision of how we can live, have life, even in the midst of this devastation, in a way that might even allow our human story to be finished in beauty.
The are many different aspects to Harjo’s vision of the way of connection, but it begins with a vision of “all our relations” that is viewing ourselves as in relationship with all, all of creation, all plants and animals, all peoples, tied together in one common, beautiful, awful, wonderful, tragic story.
In her memoir Crazy Brave, Harjo says:
“Though I was reluctant to be born, I was attracted by the music. I had plans. I was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration. These were my responsibility. I am not special. It is this way for everyone. We enter into a family story, and then other stories based on tribal clans, on tribal towns and nations, lands, countries, planetary systems, and universes. Yet we each have our individual soul story to tend.” (C.B, p. 20)
If music was part of what encouraged Harjo to come into the world it has also always been an important part of what sustains her. As she says: Music is “a language that lives in the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands. Music can raise a people up or call them to gather for war. (C.B, p.19) Harjo creates and plays incredible saxophone music in which you hear how part of the roots of what we call jazz is rooted in the music of the Native peoples.
Joy Harjo grew up in Tulsa where she witnessed the oppression of Native America and African American people and yet came to feel that “everyone wanted the same thing: land, peace, a place to make a home, cook, fall in love, make children and music.” I find her ability to claim “all her relations” to be pretty incredible. She claims not just her Native American and African American ancestors, but also her European ancestors, not just people in the past, but people in the present, not just the good things people did, but also the evil. I sense in her the same kind of Spirit that we hear in Paul’s letter to the Philippians today in which we hear him boldly claim all these different aspects of who he is, all his multiplicities: Jewish, formerly a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church, now one giving his all for the new creation of God.
Harjo’s deep deep sense of connection comes through not only through her family stories and tribal stories, but also through her dreams and mystical visions and her understanding of remembrance.
She speaks of Congo square in New Orleans, “which was originally a southeastern Indian ceremonial ground. It became a meeting place for tribal peoples, Africans, and their European friends, lovers, and families. They gathered there to dance, to enjoy the music and the food wrapped in the cloths and gourds they brought to share. This was the place of gossip, news, philosophy, and history. These people, our ancestors, want to be recognized; they want to be remembered. “
Remembrance helps us to feel and face our holes and the “gulfs of sadness” within us and among us. This is helpful because “Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol” where what we need is the assistance of others through “kindness, food, good words, and music.”
The holes within us are not just about the loss of loved ones, they are directly related to the legacy of imperialism and colonialism that is part of our heritage as earthlings. It means that the human experience is “difficult and jarring.” Harjo suggests that for us as human beings living in our world: “Joy can only be known through despair here” and attempting to flee this pain only leads to disaster for “If you fight water, you drown.” (C.B., p. 24 & 27)
These human relations, these connections, no matter how painful, are part of the “story matrix that connects all of us –all of us are connected in a single story.” This embrace of all our relations feels so healing, so grounding amidst a culture that teaches us not to value, not to honor, not to remember the past and our ancestors. Though claiming and practicing all our relations is painful, the alternative is disaster for as Harjo says: when we no longer see or hear our ancestors we forget our stories, we forget our songs, and we lose track of the purpose and reason for life. (C.B., p. 29) I would suggest that we witnessed the fruit of that evil in Las Vegas.
In contrast, Harjo says her spiritual guardian keeps before her the ancestors, who speak to her from the past or the present, giving her the strength to overcome. Listen to how she speaks of their voices:
They speak softly, with kindness. They are quick with humor, and keep an open path. They have been tested with suffering and have responded with wisdom rather than bitterness. They teach by story, images and songs. And they are respectful to mystery. They continue to remind me that it is best to walk this earthly path with vnektckv, compassion. All I have to do is to remember them, and they stand in memory in a kind of light. (C.B., p. 31)
This connection to the ancestors also seems connected to what Harjo calls “inner knowing”, which she describes as ” a shimmer of intelligent light, unerring in the midst of this destruction, terrible, and beautiful life. It is a strand of the divine, a pathway for the ancestors and teachers who love us.” (Crazy Brave, p. 81) This inner knowing in turn seems to be part of why Harjo can hear the Spirit speaking to her through almost everything, every kind of music, traditional Native music but also Motown, rock n roll, psychedelic, Frank Zappa, jazz and country music, through all kinds of literature and poetry, even through television though she recognizes how television threatens to destroy “the diversity of the worlds’ stories and manners of telling” and clearly thinks it is a problem that it is the altar space of “most of the homes in America” and that “It is the authority and the main source of stories for many in the world.” (C.B., p. 154)
We hear this connection between remembrance and knowing in Harjo’s description of how, as a very young single mother, she gave birth to her son in the total alien culture of a hospital: He has taken his first breath… My son and I stare at each other in the stunning moment of that sacred vow. His eyes are black and knowing. He looks to me with full knowledge of his place in this story. He will soon forget it. I look at him with an unbearable love, and with troubling questions: What have I gotten myself into? How will we ever make it through? I have never felt so vulnerable. “
(C.B, p. 124)
Harjo says, “we are all vulnerable to forgetting, all of us,” but we must remember for each of our thoughts and action fuels the momentum of the story,” our collective story. (C.B., p. 107)
An important re-birth for Harjo happened when she began to attend a high school called the Institute of American Indian arts where despite all their tribal difference the students all found commonality in creativity and “facing the traumas of colonization and dehumanization.” (C.B., p. 86)
It was a time when the wave of revolution, “a giant waking consciousness,” inspired by the civil rights movement, had set them on fire with the vision of the possibility of peace and justice for the native peoples. (C.B., p. 138) It inspired them to be “traditional-contemporary twentieth-century warriors, artists, and dreamers.” Submerged within this tribal struggle the revolution of female power was also emerging. As Harjo puts it: “I felt the country’s heart breaking. It was all breaking inside of me.” (C.B., p. 139)
I have talked about the practice of connection in relationship to music, to ancestors, to people, to history, to our experience, to the Spirit, to dreams and visions, to education and institutions. I want to end my remarks with her reflections on the spirit of poetry for if her arts college marked the beginning of her rebirth there is real way in which the Spirit of poetry helped her to emerge fully into this world. The last paragraph of Harjo’s memoir is about this spirit and how it came to her.
She writes: “to imagine the spirit of poetry is much like imagining the shape and size of knowing. It is a kind of resurrection light, it is the tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear, or a humming bird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a woman undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything.”
It was this spirit of poetry that came to her not long after she began to suffer panic attacks. As he stood caught between between panic and love the spirit of poetry came to her saying: “Your coming with me, poor thing. You don’t know how to listen. You don’t know how to speak. You don’t know how to sing. I will teach you.” So, she concludes, ” I followed poetry.” (C.B., p. 164 )
I want to conclude these reflections by reading from Joy Harjo’s book of poems entitled Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. My hope is that in and through these poems and parts of poems, you can hear Joy Harjo’s prophetic proclamation of the way of connection and what it might mean for all of us.
Readings from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings
p. 12: Excerpt from “No”
There was nothing about it in the news. Everything was the same. Unemployment was up. Another queen crowned with flowers. Then there was the sports scores.
Yes, the distance was great between your country and mine. Yet our children played in the path between our houses.
Humans were created by mistake. Someone laugher and we came crawling out. That was the beginning of the story; we were hooked then. What a wild dilemma, how to make it to the stars, on a highway slick with fear —
p. 14: Once the World Was Perfect
Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.
When I woke up from a forty-year sleep, it was by a song. I could hear the drums in the village. I felt the sweat of ancestors in each palm. The singers were singing the world into place, even as it continued to fall apart. They were making songs to turn hatred into love.
p. 17: Cricket Song
Tonight I catch a cricket song,
Sung by a cricked who wants the attention of another–
My thinking slides in the wake of the cricket’s sweet
Longing. It’s lit by the full moon as it makes a path
Over the slick grass of the whitest dark,
I doubt the cricket cares his singing is swinging starlight
To the worry that has darkened my min.
It is mating season.
They will find their way to each other by sounds.
Time and how are the mysterious elements of any life.
I will find my way home to you.
Mvskoke Nation, June 23, 2013
Each human is a complex, contradictory story. Some stories within us have been unfolding for years, others are trembling with fresh life as they peek above the horizon. Each is a zigzag of emotional design and ancestral architecture. All the stories in the earth’s mind are connected.
Excerpts from “Goin’ Home (song)”
Last dance and the night is almost over
One last round under the starry sky
We’re all going home someway, somehow when it’s over
Hey e yah, hey e yay, aye e yah aye e yah
I’m from Oklahoma got no one to call mine
A Love supreme, a love supreme
Everybody wants a love supreme
Goin’ home going’ home goin’ home
It’s time to go home
Be kind to all you meet along the way
p. 75: This Morning I Pray for My Enemies
And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.
p. 79: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” Excerpt from
“2. Use Effective Communication Skills that display and Enhance Mutual Trust and Respect”
We say, put down your papers, your tools of coercion, your false promises, your posture of superiority and sit with us before the fire. We will share food, songs, and stories. We will gather beneath starlight and dance, and rise together at sunrise.
p. 82: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”
“4. Reduce Defensiveness and Break the Defensiveness Chain”
I could hear the light beings as they entered every cell. Every cell is a house of the god of light, they said. I could hear the spirits who love us stomp dancing. They were dancing as if they were here, and then another level of here, and then another, until the whole earth and sky was dancing.
We are here dancing, they said. There was no there.
There was no “I” or “you.”
There was us; there was “we.”
There we were as if we were the music.
You cannot legislate music to lockstep nor can you legislate the spirit of the music to stop at political boundaries—
—Or poetry, or art, or anything that is of value or matters in this world, and the next worlds.
This is about getting to know each other.
We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding together.
p. 84: “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”
6. AND, USE WHAT YOU LEARN TO RESOLVE YOUR OWN CONFLICTS AND TO MEDIATE OTHERS’ CONFLICTS:
When we made it back home, back over those curved roads
that wind through the city of peace, we stopped at the
doorway of dusk as it opened to our homelands.
We gave thanks for the story, for all parts of the story
because it was by the light of those challenges we knew
We asked for forgiveness.
We laid down our burdens next to each other.
p. 139: “Sunrise”
Sunrise, as you enter the houses of everyone here, find us.
We’ve been crashing for days, or has it been years.
Find us, beneath the shadow of this yearning mountain,
We have been sick with sour longings and the jangling of
Our spirits rise up in the dark, because they hear,
Doves in cottonwoods calling for the sun.
We struggled with a monster and lost.
Our bodies were tossed in the pile of kill. We rotted there.
We were ashamed and told ourselves for a thousand
We didn’t deserve anything but this—
And one day, in relentless eternity, our spirits discerned
movement of prayers
Carried toward the sun.
And this morning we were able to stand with all the rest
And welcome you here.
We move with the lightness of being, and we will go
Where there’s a place for us.
Joy Harjo’s poetry and music and talks can be found on the internet. Among other things I would would you watch Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Song” on Youtube. In addition to hear her recite the poem you can hear her saxophone playing at the end of it.
Lastly, though I didn’t read it as part of these reflections, Joy Harjo’s poem “I Give you Back”, from her collection She Had Some Horses, is one of the first poems she wrote and remains one her most powerful.
I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
You are not my blood anymore.
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters .
I give you back to those who stole t the
food from our plates when we were starving.
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.
keep me naked and frozen in the winter,
or smothered under blankets in the summer.
I release you
I release you
I release you
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved,
to be loved, to be loved, fear.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.
I am alive and you are so afraid
“The Blessing of Animals” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 1st, 2017. (Readings for 21A: Exodus 17:1-7, A Song of Creation, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32)
A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. As our Book of Common Prayer says, this means that there are millions of sacraments, millions of ways that through the material world, through creation, we experience and know the love of God.
This is something Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we’re celebrating today, experienced and expressed when he wrote about our being in relationship to all things. He called the sun, moon, rain, snow, and different animals his mother, brothers, and sisters. Francis apparently walked around with a wolf he had befriended. He preached to birds. My sense is that part of why poverty was a joy for Francis was the way it kept materialism from keeping him from experiencing life in its essence. When he was dying he asked his brothers to strip naked and lay him down on the earth so he could feel the earth touching his skin.
Today, I want to make a few brief connections between those animals we have developed relationships with and our scriptures today. Then I’m hoping that we can reflect on what the particular animals in our lives mean to us or have meant to us. Have we experienced them as a means of grace? If so– how? If is easy for us to be sentimental about our pets, but I hope we will resist that urge and instead honor them by talking about them as truthfully and concretely as possible so that we might hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us about them and through them.
First, in our lesson from Exodus today we hear the story of how, when the people of Israel were thirsty, Moses struck the rock and waters came flowing out. It’s a powerful image. I would say that many of us have again and again experienced how our pets can touch us such that when our hearts are feeling like nothing but hard rock-suddenly we find they are flowing with living waters again. Amen?
Secondly, in Philippians we hear: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love…” Any “encouragement”, any “consolation from love”, “any compassion and sympathy” how many of us have experienced all of these from our pets? It is a reality we cannot afford to ignore if we indeed wish to be of that same mind and have that same love.
This passage also reminds me of another that comes just a little later in Philippians when Paul speaks about how “the peace of God which passes all understanding: can keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul goes on to say what can help us find that peace when he says: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (4:8)
How many of us have, have experienced through the way our animals love and care for us– something that is true, honorable, pure, lovely, and gracious? And yet, because they do not speak, I think we do not value it the way we would if they could speak.
And this issue of how we speak, or whether we speak, comes up in our last reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
Throughout history the church has always seem to focus more on “orthodoxy,” emphasizing the importance of saying the right thing, rather than “orthopraxy,” which emphasizes the importance of doing the right thing. But the story Jesus tells about the two sons emphasizes the opposite.
The one son seems to reject and deny his father’s authority, but goes and does what his father wants. The other with his words honors his father, but then doesn’t go do what his father asks him to do. Jesus asks who did the will of the father? And the answer is “the first.” I think if we really took the time to understand the implications of this it would revolutionize our life as a church.
This focus on action is why Luke, when he writes the gospel of the Holy Spirit, he calls it the Book of ACTS, for where Spirit is truly present it becomes embodied in actions. Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.”
Matthew’s gospel is, in part, a long tirade against the hypocrisy of Christians and other religious folks who say the right thing, but don’t do them. Perhaps if we had less of a focus on saying or believing the right things, and more on doing the right thing, we wouldn’t be living in a culture where someone would think of themselves as a Christian even if they weren’t loving their neighbor or the stranger, even if they claimed to have never repented about anything.
I would suggest that perhaps paying more attention to our animals can help us get past our prejudice towards words and focus on all the ways we experience the Spirit and divine presence speaking to us, not through words.
So let us then take some time now to reflect on and share what our animals have meant to us and what we have learned through them. Amen
(Readings for 20A: Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 1451-9, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16)
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9 (NRSV)
Some take a passage like this to argue that the ways of God are so different than ours that it is impossible to make any sense of them. When a disaster happens and thousands of people are killed they will say idiotic things like “the ways of the Lord are mysterious” somehow suggesting that God was behind that tragedy. I don’t believe that and I believe that in the beatitudes Jesus taught us that this was untrue. I think that kind of attitude is generally just a justification that’s used so we don’t really have to struggle to understand what God is about or what God is calling us to do.
In the last three weeks we’ve had these teachings from Jesus about how we are to live and think and act in regards to things like engaging in social change, loving our enemies and forgiving others. These teachings are so different from the way things are commonly done in our world that they do seem about as distant from them as the heavens are from the earth and yet, if we listen, if we are open, if we are willing to struggle with them, we will find these teachings are not inscrutable, they do make sense, they are just incredibly challenging and again and again they go against our gut instincts.
In our lesson from The Book of Jonah today, we again hear about a God who loves our enemies and calls us to do the same. Jonah has no interest in helping, much less saving, the imperialist Ninevites, but God sends him right into the belly of the beast. Worse, when they hear of their approaching destruction the Ninevites repent of their evil and avert disaster.
Jonah would have liked to seen the Ninevites destroyed so he’s pissed off and he goes off to sulk. God causes a bush to give him shade and the text says “Jonah was very happy about the bush.” Then God causes the bush to die and Jonah is left unprotected from “the sultry east wind” and the hot sun and he declares his anger at God saying “It is better for me to die then to live.”
Instead of consoling Jonah, God says to him, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah responds, “Yes, angry enough to die.” (I love that–that’s what you call an I-thou relationship with God–neither holding anything back.) And then God responds:
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nin’eveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
You can fee a powerful truth springing forth from those words. I suspect a new greater awareness overcame Jonah such that he was no longer blinded, but was now able to see the broad reality of others that he was not able to see before. It’s a story that tells us about the gap between what often seems just or fair to us and what really is fair and just.
Last week I talked about resentfulness as the opposite of thankfulness. Today I want to focus a bit on how resentfulness can blind us, how it can, as we see the story of Jonah, keep us focused on “just us”, rather then being able to hear the call to justice.
In Matthew’s gospel we hear that from the perspective of divine justice, if they are in need, people are to be given shelter, food and water, and loving care when they are sick or lonely or in jail. If we have this perspective we see divine justice at work when the landlord in today’s story decides to give everyone a days’ wage, even if they had only worked for an hour, because everyone needs to be able to live.
However, this seems unfair to those who had worked for many hours under the hot sun. They have apparently forgotten what it is to have to stand around worrying all day not knowing whether or not you are going to be able to provide something for your family to eat that night. Perhaps they thought it was very generous for the landlord to give a days wage for an hours work and were hoping for that same generosity to be also shown to them. The injustice that they feel seems compounded by the fact that the landlord makes them wait while he pays the latecomers first. That must have felt like salt on the wounds.
Jesus was a strange spiritual teacher. When you think of spiritual teachers you usually think of people who talk in ways that leave you feeling good, but Jesus’ stories often do the opposite as they seem designed to stir up troubling feelings and to get you to reflect on your own experience, or provoke us to collectively wrestle with the questions they pose. I think today’s story is meant to get us to wrestle with how we deal with things when our guts protest that something seems unfair, or unjust, because we cannot see a higher justice or fairness at work.
Let me give you some examples of when and where this might happen.
If you are in a large family and the food is limited–it might seem most fair to you if each person got exactly the same amount of food. But a parent can see that not all children have the same needs, a child who is sick or growing may need more food then another child. That may be true, but there is a good chance it will seem unfair to you if you are one who is getting less.
The same thing goes for time. In an ideal world parents could give each of their children all the time and attention they need. But we don’t live in that ideal world so sometimes you find yourself having to figure out whose most needing your attention. If a child has a chronic illness they may get much more of your attention throughout their childhood. The family resources are going to go towards where they seem to be most needed. That can be painful. Not to blame anyone, but that can feel pretty unfair particularly if you are unable to get your essential needs met and that can happen even if we parents are making the best decisions we can make and we know that often is not the case.
This issue of what feels fair, or just, to us sometimes being in conflict with God’s restorative justice comes up at a number of points in Jesus’ teachings.
The prodigal son treats his family shamefully, wastes vital family resources on his profligate lifestyle and what happens? Does his father punish him? No, he throws a party for him to celebrate the fact that he has come back to his senses. His older responsible brother is aghast. He won’t join in the celebration for he feels it’s unfair. He tells his father “I did everything you asked and you never killed the fatted calf for me! How’s that fair?” And then his father gently calls him on it: “Look I divided up my fortune between you and your brother. He’s wasted his half so everything I have is yours. In other words, you are no longer a child, you can have a party anytime you want, but your brother who was dead has come back to life and we should celebrate this.”
The issue of fairness also comes up in Jesus’ teaching that the last shall be first, which he often address to those who saw themselves as righteous and above others. To them he said: “Prostitutes and tax collectors are going to enter the kingdom of heaven before you.” It’s an oldest responsible child’s nightmare. Not only am I not going to be rewarded for being the dutiful obedient child–in some ways it feels like I’m being punished for it. And this appears not just to have been some distant future prediction. We hear that in the early church this happened: notorious sinners, poor people, people others looked down upon were filled with God’s joyous spirit, felt loved and accepted by God and those who had labored all day in the fields of trying to do the right thing and obey the law were often late coming to the feast. Life can be a gut churning experience and Jesus is challenging us to look at what’s happening with our guts and wrestle with what’s going on there.
I think the example of handicapped parking spaces is a helpful reminder of how easily we can become blinded to the needs of others as we get caught up in “just us.” Your able-bodied and driving around the parking lot and you see that the only empty parking space is reserved for people with disabilities. Where does your mind go? It tells you that if that space wasn’t a handicapped parking space you would have been able to park there. The reality is that if this was not a reserved space the likelihood is someone else would have parked there, but in that moment of feeling victimized you can’t see that. So instead of feeling grateful that our society has evolved to the point where we are going to make sure that people who can’t walk far can get to that place, and all it costs is for the rest of us to sometimes have to walk a block or two further, we get caught up in this narrative of unfairness.
One of the places we really have to wrestle with our guts and what they perceive to be fair and just is around social change movements, movements for restorative justice, and how they often conflict with what our guts or consciences tell us is fair.
In Huckleberry Finn, we see this conflict at work. Huck is helping his friend Jim escape from slavery. Then his conscience gets to him. Stealing is wrong. By helping Jim escape he’s helping to steal another man’s property. He start’s to turn Jim in but then realizes he can’t do it. He loves Jims too much so he turns back and says to himself “if conscience were an old dog I would take it out and shoot it.”
Our guts and our conscience don’t necessarily have anything to do with true justice and true fairness.
In the introduction to her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, L Maria Child talks about why, without Susan B. Anthony’s encouragement, she would never have written this powerful book. Why? Because she was so ashamed that she had an affair with the white doctor who lived across the street as a way of keeping her master from being able to force her to have sex with him. Here you are trapped in the utmost evil, forced to survive anyway you can, and your conscience is giving you that kind of grief for having sex as a way to keep from being raped? Jesus help us.
On the other side, you can read the diaries and writings of slave owners who felt really grieved and hurt when slaves they loved chose to run away to gain their freedom. It felt to them like a betrayal. Their sense of “just us” kept them from seeing the reality of people they loved. It blocked them from being able to envision God’s justice.
I can remember my dad’s sense of unfairness when, as a result of the women’s movement in the 1960’s, my mom began to insist he do the dishes each night. He had the idea that if he worked all day he should be able to come home and rest. He had encouraged my mom to go to work, but he obviously hadn’t expected that this would mean he would have to work when he got home. That’s not how things had worked in his world. Most other men he knew were not having to do the dishes every night. When he got used to it I think my dad came to see how distorted his thinking had been–that if this woman he loved deeply had worked all day and then came home and cooked then she too needed time to rest– but in took several years of conflict before this awareness dawned.
So often “just us” has nothing to do with justice and when it comes to housework I don’t need to just talk about my dad. At an Episcopal High School Youth retreat, I read an essay called “The Politics of Housework.” It listed all the ways husbands used to get out of helping with housework: always asking their wives questions about how to do something, banging the dishes around or finding other ways to communicate their displeasure, talking about how nice things had been in the past. I felt totally convicted because I had used most of these strategies on my mom and I realized there was no more reason she should do these chores, which at the time I considered boring and demeaning, than me. It changed me. From then on I did housework without complaint.
I think it’s worth thinking about these realities because we’re now in a time in our history where we are seeing the power of the politics of resentment. Any kind of past wound, slight, or past grievance, real or imagined, can be nurtured so that we are unable to see, unable to feel, empathy for whoever is “the other”, the not us. Whether the other is poor or rich, black or white, male or female, gay, straight or transgender we find folks encouraging us to focus on “just us” not justice.
For example, much of the wealth divide between black and white Americans is about home ownership. This gap is not just about what happened under slavery, its about what happened in the 1940’s and 1950’s when Federal Government policies made cheap home loans available to whites to build nice houses in the suburbs, but black people generally could not get these loans because they were not available for people living in integrated areas. If we now addressed this past discrimination by saying we should now do for African Americans what we did for white Americans, in terms of making these cheap housing loans available to them, you know there would be an incredible outcry, the claim that this was unfair. Many white people would denounce it as another form of welfare and say that it was fostering dependency totally ignoring how their parents or grandparents received these same loans and how much of their current wealth is based on that fact.
I’m not going to argue about whether this would be a good thing to do or not. I think how we get from our current unjust unequal caste society to a society where there is much greater justice and much greater equality is complex. For now I just want us to feel how these politics of resentment and paranoia keep us from being able to empathize with one another and to see where justice is calling us.
If we are not going to let this kind of fear, anger, resentment, and paranoia keep us from moving forward, which we cannot afford to let happen, we need to be able to recognize it, address it, and work our way through it, so that the feast of God can happen, this banquet at which all are fed and satisfied can happen, this reign of God in which people feel seen, and known, and loved, and appreciated, can happen.
Let us take the time to listen to our resentfulness so that we can understand who we are hardening our hearts towards, who we are unable to listen to, who we are unwilling to try to understand, because without the spirit of listening and understanding we are not going to be able to enter into the new creation, the land of promise, that our hearts long for. But if we are willing, God is able and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
“Jesus and the Sword: The Paradox of Conflict and Forgiveness.” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on September 17, 2017. (Readings for 19A: Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:1-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35).
I want to talk today about Jesus and the Sword. The sword I am speaking of is a metaphor for a kind of spiritual power, but I asked Oliver Barson to bring one of his swords so that as I talk you can remember that the power I’m talking about is not something nice, but something that has the power to help or cause enormous harm. It’s something meant to help us free ourselves from that which would hold us in bondage, but it is so often used to dehumanize us and cut us off from our bodies and feelings and each other.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel we hear: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36) (1.)
Then in Matthew’s gospel today we hear: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:21)
In the first we hear that the peace Jesus brings will only come through struggle and conflict. In the second, we hear this call to forgive. How do we reconcile these texts? How does forgiveness relate to struggle and conflict?
Last week I was struck by Paul’s clear and simple message in Romans:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8)
Loving your neighbor as yourself. That sounds so right and obvious until we remember how Jesus defined who our neighbor is: the one who is in need, the least of these, the one who is a stranger, a foreigner, someone from another faith or even a heretic, someone whose ideas or ways of living we totally disagree with. Ouch!
The First Letter of John brings the implications of this home in a powerful way:
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . . . Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from (Jesus) is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John 4:11-12, 16, 20)
That seems flat-out crazy. What do you mean I cannot love the invisible God unless I love my visible sisters and brothers? The invisible God pours love and acceptance into my heart—my sisters and brothers often do the opposite. The invisible God doesn’t insult me, neglect me, judge me, piss me off—they often do!
But when Jesus talks about loving God, he’s not talking about a sentiment or an idea, he’s talking about reality. If God is present to us primarily in and through creation, if God is present to us primarily in and through our sisters and brothers, then the degree to which we are loving them is the degree to which we are loving God.
Jesus’ first miracle was showing us what it means to live from a place where we know ourselves as Beloved of God. His second miracle, which can’t be separated from the first, is to show us how, if we know and accept that love, it impels us to want to love God back, as God comes to us in need of love, in need of care, in need of nurturance—in the form of our sisters and brothers and through creation.
This is why the way of Jesus is a way of community. Community forces us to live in the reality of who we are and where we are instead of in our fantasies. I suspect that half the people in this country who consider themselves Christian, as following in the way of Jesus, aren’t really part of any church, aren’t really practicing community. It’s a lot easier to fantasize about being a good Christian if you are not having to deal with all the crap living in relationship to people stirs up in us.
The community of the disciples seems pretty representative of most communities which are composed of people who sometimes get it together, but other times don’t, who sometimes are shallow and petty and egotistical and sometimes are amazingly heroic, loving, and compassionate. Perhaps it is not an accident, or a mistake, that community and relationships stir this stuff up in us. Perhaps it’s because we are being called to learn to deal with this stuff rather than living in denial, or avoiding real intimacy for fear that its vulnerability will make us feel so angry when we, or our loved ones, are hurt or neglected.
Last week’s gospel told us how to handle things if a member of our community sins against us. First go talk to them on your own; if they listen to you, you have regained them. (Regained—that’s how much is at stake in dealing with conflicts over feeling hurt.) If they don’t listen, take one or two others with you to talk with them. If
they still refuse to listen, then tell it to the church, your community. Then we hear: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
Now we tend to hear this as a call to have nothing more to do with them because that’s what so many churches do in terms of how they relate to people they view as not of their faith or as sinners. That’s using the sword to cut people off, something many of us are very good at, but that’s not what Matthew is saying. Instead, Matthew is saying relate to them as one who doesn’t share your faith or your values. And here we have to remember that Jesus didn’t cut off those who didn’t share his faith or values; he reached out to them, he loved them and he kept loving them, not from any place of denial, but in reality.
It’s a striking challenge to those of us who are so quick to draw the sword of judgment when we have felt hurt, neglected, or insulted. So often when that happens we don’t go talk to the person who has hurt us. Not all hurts require us to speak up—some hurts don’t really bother us. But if a hurts does bother us, how often do we go talk to the person who has hurt us: one in two times, one in ten, one in twenty, almost never? This is a huge problem because whether the person agrees with us or not, often simply speaking up is the difference between feeling alienated from them and not. Often we don’t speak up because the hurt keeps us from seeing how valuable they are to us. Sometimes it may be because we are afraid they will say something that will make us feel worse. That sometimes happens. Sometimes I suspect we fear they might say something to assuage our righteous wrath that we feel so attached to. Even more rarely do we go to step two and call on one or two others to help mediate or reconcile. If we did, sometimes it might mean we also had to recognize that we also did something that led to the harm that was done.
Instead of taking these steps that help to address and limit harm, we so often go right to judgment and cutting people off. We stop relating. We stop talking. If we do talk, it’s not to the person who has harmed or neglected us. Instead we share our righteous wrath with others, putting them in the position of absorbing our anger towards a person they can’t deal with because they have not really been invited to.
Our inability to deal with our anger about our hurts, neglect, and shame keeps us from being able to sustain marriages, friendships, and community life. When I see the harm it does to so many people I love it makes me want to cry out with Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole?” (Jeremiah 8:22) Is there no spiritual power to help us address these wounds? Is all this church stuff just a bunch of talk?
This is a despair I feel on a personal level, but it is also a despair I feel on a collective level. When I look at the history of this country I find it is a story of hope unborn. We have not been able to create a land with liberty and justice for all, in part because the harmed, the exploited, the neglected have not been able to come to a place where they can trust each other and work together. Instead, when we look back, again and again we will see that the various groups who have suffered from different kinds of racial or gender discrimination, those who have suffered from different kinds of economic exploitation, those who have suffered from marginalization and cultural domination, have been unable to achieve the kind of unity necessary to transform the structures of domination. Instead, they remain mired in the swamps of resentfulness, fear, and distrust because of all the past harms they have suffered and the narratives they have developed around those harms. This is part of why the New Poor People’s Campaign seems so essential—because it recognizes this and is trying to take on that challenge.
I think there is a balm in Gilead, but only for those who sincerely seek it. There is a balm in Gilead, but for it to help heal us requires of us a far greater degree of maturity, discernment, and practice then we’ve so far been willing to pursue. This is the kind of maturity the author ofEphesians calls for when he or she writes:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of (God’s) power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Do you get that? Our fight is not against people, but against ideas and spirits, feelings and narratives. We have got to learn how not to confuse our fight with them with a fight with people. This is what Martin Luther King recognized and part of why he was so effective so it is perhaps helpful to think about him and the Civil Rights movement as you hear what follows.
“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all these, take the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10-17)
Here I want to point out something that doesn’t come through in the English translation. According to Walter Wink, the Greek word that is used for sword here refers not to the long sword, which was often used as a defensive weapon, but the kind of short sword that the Roman legions used when they were on the attack. The author is therefore telling us we need to be ready to go on the offensive for the sake of the gospel of peace.
I know it may be hard to hear through a military metaphor, but the author is pushing us to have a radically different vision of how we are to engage people who are harming or neglecting others, or have harmed or neglected us, calling us away from the revenge and hatred our anxious grasping hearts want to a higher and more effective form of struggle that recognizes that so often when harm or neglect is happening it is happening because we are disconnected from ourselves or enslaved by forces, feelings, and ideas within us.
Here I want to take a moment to talk about the “anxious grasping of the heart” which is what Paul is taking about when he talks about “the flesh.” It’s so important to understand this that I’m going to say it again. When Paul speaks of “the flesh” he is not speaking about our bodies, but what arises from the anxious grasping of our hearts. I think “the flesh” is a terribly unfortunate phrase, for when Paul lists the desires of the flesh he lists things like idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, envy, and a party spirit (by which he doesn’t mean people who love to party but people who engage in partisan conflicts)—none of which have anything to do with our bodies or bodily desires. (Galatians 5:19-21
The anxious grasping of our hearts can transform physical desires into addictions, but the language of “the flesh” often confuses the two. There is all the difference in the world between the love of food and gluttony—where you are using food to stuff an inner emptiness. There is all the difference in the world between the beauty and wonder and goodness of sexual desire and the lust which transforms people into objects for us to use and exploit as a way for us to feel better regardless of its impact on them. There is all the difference in the world between enjoying alcohol and using alcohol to disconnect from our feelings and being intimate with others.
These are critical distinctions, yet so often when Christians use the word “flesh” they are not using it the way Paul did; they are instead calling on us to subdue and dominate and control our bodies and feelings or, worse, they are calling on us to use a spiritual sword to cut us off from our bodies, feelings, and physical desires.
It’s this latter message I heard when, as a confused seventeen-year-old, I landed in a Catholic Charismatic Evangelical Community. I was told we were to cut ourselves off from our physical desires, particularly sexual desires. I attempted to do this and the results were disastrous. Our bodies are the doorways to our souls. They are the means through which we experience the giving and receiving of love. When I cut myself off from my body I experienced myself cut off from the physical world, resulting in this incredible sense of inner emptiness, desolation, and anguish. I suspect it is where all who try to subdue the body end up. In the end, the attempt to dominate and control our bodies and feelings is usually a form of idolatry, the attempt to transform the divine, which is living and fluid and mysterious into something that can be possessed and controlled and that like all idolatry leads to spiritual death.
Jesus does not call us to do battle with our bodies, but instead with the anxious grasping of our hearts that would keep us from being open and loving, compassionate and ready to take risks. The whole call to take up your cross is not about subduing our bodies and their desires, or viewing them as the enemy, it is instead a call to live the death and resurrection that transform our anxious grasping hearts into the greater heart of being in communion with the heart of God.
However, while Jesus calls us to honor our feelings and desires he doesn’t want us to be enslaved by them, and it is here that the sword of the spirit, used very carefully, can be a means of freeing us from bondage.
Our gospel today confronts us with the picture of a man enslaved
by the anxious grasping of his heart. This man has been given his life back though having his debts forgiven. But rather than being able to receive and appreciate this gift, he’s still controlled by his desire for gain and by his inability to see and honor the needs of others. The result is that he ends up being tortured.
The Lord in this story is not God because God doesn’t torture anyone. Instead, the story is a metaphor for the kinds of torments people suffer when they are unable to forgive. Every day I encounter people who are tormented because they have not learned how to claim and use the power to forgive. The result is that they walk around with their cups brimming and overflowing with resentfulness, anger, frustration, and fear. You can hear it in conversations that are unkind and inconsiderate. When pushed, it comes out like a monster of harsh punitive anger, anger intended to inflict pain. So many of us are only able to keep our cups from overflowing through drugs (I find so many young men use marijuana as way to disconnect from their anger), alcohol, TV, video games, exercise, meditation, or through avoiding intimacy and connection with others lest it bring that monster to the surface.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider how addictive and satisfying we find revenge fantasies. We feed ourselves with them constantly through books, movies, and TV shows, or replay them in our heads as soon as we’ve felt slighted or hurt. A good revenge fantasy can give you a serotonin-like release. But revenge almost never works in reality the way it does in our fantasies. In our fantasies, when we take righteous revenge on others, they are confronted with the evil they have done in such a way that they cannot deny it and are left to die in that awareness, or to feel forever indebted to us because of our magnanimity. When or where does that ever happen? Yet we continually live and act as if that fantasy were something real.
I think suicide can be about a kind of revenge fantasy aimed at others or aimed at ourselves. Again, part of my incredible frustration is that people can come to a point where they can no longer see that it’s a fantasy and that it will not bring any kind of real relief to themselves or others.
I also keep hearing about revenge fantasies being played out on campuses in the name of calling people out. Just this week I talked with a young activist who said she is still recovering from the kind of bullying and shaming she encountered in her college and the kind of disconnection it fostered in her.
It seems Jesus’ message about the power and importance of forgiveness seems to go significantly unheard, is not understood, and is largely not practiced, except perhaps in places like Twelve Step communities and in the offices of good therapists. But Jesus wants to free us from being in any kind of abusive relationship with ourselves or others. He wants us to learn how not to be possessed and controlled by our fears or anger or any other feeling that would treat us like an object. He wants everyone to understand that through the Spirit we can find the power to forgive. Our anxious frightened hearts want to punish, usually both ourselves and others, but we have been given the power to let go of that desire to punish.
Here I want to come back to the image of the spiritual sword, now not used to attack others or ourselves, but to cut through whatever
chains would enslave us by keeping us bound to unhappiness and replaying the ways we were harmed or neglected over and over and over again. That’s a chain that needs to be broken, and I believe we can learn how to break it.
It’s important to note that when I’m talking about forgiveness I’m not talking about any kind of spiritual or emotional amputation. I’m not talking about forgetting or denying how we’ve been harmed or neglected or shamed. I’m also not talking about reconciliation— that’s a more complicated process because we can’t be truly reconciled with someone who doesn’t share our values. I’m talking about forgiveness as a process of death and resurrection that allows us to live no longer enslaved to past harms, no longer continually drinking from the cup of resentfulness, so that we are able to live as free people with clear minds and generous hearts.
The miserable unforgiving servant in today’s gospel is an image of us if we don’t learn how to use and exercise the power of forgiveness. As Madeline Diehl said last week, the heart is a muscle and like any muscle it needs to be exercised for it to function well. If it is a muscle we need to learn to exercise, it’s worth heeding C.S. Lewis’ advice that if we have not learned how to forgive we probably don’t want to start with Adolf Hitler. It’s much better to start with smaller things like the righteous wrath we feel toward our kid who inconsiderately borrowed our car without asking us. We probably want to start with ourselves when we realize that they hadn’t borrowed our car; we had just forgotten that we had parked it down the block for some reason.
The whole promise and hope of the gospel is that we can live lives of thanksgiving—that’s what Eucharist means, thanksgiving, that’s the opposite of resentfulness. But to go from the nightmare of unforgiveness, resentfulness, and the lack of empathy, compassion, and connection that they give rise to, it is up to us to learn to use and claim the power of forgiveness. For us to grow in our ability to be intimate with others, our ability in Adrienne Rich’s words “to expand the possibility of truth among us, the possibility of life among us,” we have got to learn how to use the power of forgiveness every day—even in those situations where forgiveness doesn’t seem really warranted, as when a loved one dies, or something bad happens to us that we had no real control over. Let us learn to forgive, forgive, forgive so that we can live resurrected lives, no longer bound or controlled by the deaths we have suffered, so that we can learn how to live as free people, with good lives and good relationships, and an ability to do battle with the forces that have enslaved so many of us and so much of our world. For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
1) It is important to understand that the relationships in which this conflict is breaking forth are the hierarchical obedience relationships that structured the patriarchal household of the
time. The gospel of freedom cannot be contained within such relationships.
2) Jesus taught the way of paradox; that is a way in which you embrace opposite truths. Today we hear we are called to engage in conflicts to promote the creation of good relationships.
We also hear we are called to do this from a place of love and forgiveness. Neither works without the other.
Reflections presented by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Sunday, August 27th, 2017. (Readings for the 12thSunday after Pentecost: 16:A: Isaiah 51:16, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20)
(At the beginning of the reflection time Sam Clark sang and played: “All Along the Watch Tower,”by Bob Dylan, as adapted by Jimi Hendrix. Below are the words).
“There must be some kind of way outta here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much confusion; I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
“No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke.
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But, you and I, we’ve been through that and this is not our fate,
so let us not talk falsely now. The hour’s getting late.”
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view,
while all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl, all along the watchtower, all along the watchtower.
In Isaiah 21: 6-7 we hear: “For thus the Lord said to me: Go, post a lookout, let him announce what he sees. When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, riders on donkeys, riders on camels, let him listen diligently, very diligently.”
Who’s standing on the watchtower? Who’s sounding the warning? Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is just such a prophetic warning. Everyone seems to be drinking the Jokester’s wine, the wine of foolishness. From business leaders to working people, everyone has forgotten what life is really worth. It is time to stop talking falsely, for the hour is getting late. Jimi Hendrix’s haunting guitar solo lets us know what’s at stake: war, isolation, desolation.
Many confuse prophecy with predicting the future. Prophecy is not some kind of magic that allows you to predict the future; it is about revealing where things are and where things are headed unless there is change. It’s about helping people understand causes and consequences. Jesus compares it to reading the weather: you read the skies to know what kind of weather is coming, so why can’t you read the times? Why can’t you see what is happening in our world and what is going to happen as a result?
Prophecy is about speaking the God word, the Living word, the word that reconnects us to reality and to ultimate reality. It enables us to speak to our reality and to transform it. We see, know, and experience the world through our words so when our words become dead, when they become disconnected from reality, we become unable to know the reality of our lives and world, we become unable to speak to our condition. That’s why we’re so dependent on the prophets and prophecy because the heart of prophecy is living words: words that are alive, vibrant, transformative. That’s why prophecy has so often been spoken in the form of poetry or sung to music. When you read the Hebrew prophets more than 2,000 years later, they still sing out with original, uncompromised language and vision.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus challenge his disciples. “But who do you say I am?” Every generation is challenged with discovering who “I AM” is for them. Every generation of Christians needs to define who Jesus is for them. If the gates of hell are not going to prevail against us, then we must define the nature of the evil we are facing in our time and how it can be overcome.
Today I want to talk about the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling as prophecy, as an attempt to speak a new living word, as an attempt to clear the junk out of our eyes and hearts and minds so we can see and feel and think again, so that we can have a new understanding of the world we are living in and what we must be about if we are going to save our world and our humanity and live good lives—that is lives lived as soul-filled free people, true, faithful, and loving, and not as slaves to fear, delusion, cowardice, ego, and hatred.
After having been rejected by eight publishers, Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone was first published just over twenty years ago on June 26, 1997. The last volume of this seven-volume series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, was published ten years later in 2007, ten years ago this summer. To give you a sense of the impact of this series, that volume sold eleven million copies within twenty-four hours of its release in the United States. As of May 2013, this series had already sold more than 500 million copies, making it the best-selling book series of all time. (1) It has already been translated into seventy-three languages. I suspect that for a generation of young people it may well prove to have the kind of lasting impact that the Beatles had on my generation, and I say that as someone who believes the Beatles played an incredibly important role in helping to open up the consciousness of a generation.
Why do I speak of the Harry Potter series in terms of prophecy?
First, we should be clear.J. K. Rowling is speaking to us through writing about a kind of parallel universe, a world which looks a lot like ours, but alongside of which is a world where there are wizards and witches, goblins and ghosts, werewolves and giants, mermaids and mermen, and all sorts of other wild fantastic creatures. Some of these creatures we know through ancient mythology and literature and some J. K. Rowling invented, such as the dementors, creatures who inspire fear in people because they feed on our fears and can suck your soul right out of you.
When the series begins, our protagonist, Harry Potter, knows almost nothing of this other world because he’s been brought up cut off from and lied to about the nature of his world and his past. It is only on Harry’s 11th birthday that the delusional materialist world of suburbia that he’s been taught to believe in comes crashing down when he learns he is really a wizard, that his parents didn’t die in a car crash but were killed by an evil wizard, and that he is to attend Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Each volume represents another year of Harry’s life until the last volume, when he decides that after his 17th birthday he will not to go back to Hogwarts so he can focus on trying to kill the evil wizard who is on the verge of ruling our world.
In raising our children, baby boomers have tended to do all we could to protect them from the kinds of risks that so many of us willingly pursued when we were young. To try to ensure that our children got the best education possible many of us sent our kids to private schools, contributing to the virtual collapse of public schools in many parts of the country. To see that our children advanced in every way possible and to protect them from the dangers of the world, we filled our kids’ days and nights with all kinds of classes and activities to the point that it is rare to find communities with the sense of neighborhood that many of us grew up with. All kinds of specialized activities meant to help you develop yourself (and perhaps your marketability) have contributed to the decline of what Peter Linebaugh has called the commons, those public spaces and forums in which all are welcomed and profit.
But if parents of my generation have seemed to have wanted to protect our children from all kinds of harm and evil, J. K. Rowling has revealed their desire to know the world as it is, as the Harry Potter series is a descent into the excitement and freedom of a world not controlled by adults, but also of the heartbreak, horror, and death we encounter in our world.
Writing about a parallel world, J. K. Rowling helps us to see and experience our world and our lives in a new way.
It is a world in which there is a battle going on between good and evil. Evil is the attempt to dominate, control, and exploit others. Yet the institutions and bureaucracies of Harry’s world are largely oblivious to this war, instead thinking that all that needs to be done is to develop good standards and guidelines and that if everyone follows the rules everything will run smoothly. Sound familiar? When those in power do come to realize the world is being threatened with real evil, their response is to attempt to control and dominate others in ways that only makes things worse.
This whole world of evil and domination is significantly defined by racism—one race or species trying to dominate and control and exploit the others. Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard, is all about blood purity, wizards who have not intermarried with muggles (humans without magical powers). The history of this world has been defined by the conflicts of non-magical humans versus wizards versus all these other kinds of creatures. One of the reasons that Voldemort is able to gain the allegiance of various types of creatures that he despises is that many of these creatures have been so badly treated by society in the past that they wrongly believe they will do better allying with him, and thus they rally around him and his worship of pure and brutal power.
In a Harvard Commencement speech, which J. K. Rowling published under the title Very Good Lives, she speaks of how working for Amnesty International in her early 20’s immersed her in the world of good and evil. There she read many, many “handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials, executions, kidnappings, and rapes.” She met those whose torture had left them permanently mentally ill. She says that one day she heard a “terrible scream of pain and horror such as I never heard before. It was the cry of a young man upon learning the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.”(2)
She says: “Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read. And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.”
She goes on to say:
Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.
Working at Amnesty International was part of what taught Rowling “the importance of imagination,” and here she is speaking of imagination not simply as “the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation.” But even more importantly in “its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
Rowling goes on to say that those who don’t exercise this capacity “enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”
Still, she says, many “prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.”
Strikingly, she concludes, “I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.”(3)
So this Harry Potter stuff is not just the stuff of fantasy. It’s our lives, our world, written in fantasy. The power of its imagery came back to me again and again over these past two weeks.
Determined not to be ruled by death, Lord Voldemort’s followers are known as death-eaters. It is an evocative title. When the Dark Lord murders someone, his followers put his sign in the sky as a way to terrify their enemies and rally the death-eaters. Those images spoke to me when I recently saw the footage of hundreds of people chanting hateful slogans and marching with torches during the night, bearing swastikas and symbols of the KKK, and then learned of the murder of Heather Heyer. I don’t think we have any clearer symbols of evil than the swastika and the letters KKK. Those images and the president’s response to them left me imagining that the Dark Lord has indeed arisen over our county—calling together other hate-eaters — and the events since then have seemed to bear this out.
The march on Charlottesville happened on Saturday. The Monday before that, the home of Nikki Joly and Chris Moore in Jackson, Michigan, was burned down, killing their five pets and destroying all their belongings. This was done apparently in retaliation for their leading their city to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance this past April, and for their leading Jackson’s first Pride celebration two days earlier.
About this Pride celebration, the Jackson Area Landlord Association’s President, Robert Tulloch, sent an e-mail warning to the members of the city council saying: “I saw something on a site about marching to Blackman Park and raising a flag? I hope they are not planning to raise a gay flag. That is an in-your-face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response. This IS the queer agenda.”
Here in Ann Arbor, just in this past week, the Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat, the Ann Arbor skateboard park and the track at Concordia Lutheran College were covered with racist and Nazi graffiti, and the Common Language (LGBT) bookstore was vandalized. Clearly, some people are hearing and responding to the call to hatred.
So—we don’t have to look too far to find the kinds of struggles between good and evil that Harry Potter is all about, but part of the power of Harry Potter is that is not simplistic, it is not dualistic. It challenges us to know the stories of how people got where they are, because only then will we have any hope of struggling with them effectively. Though our country’s problems are far greater than those who are currently rallying around the KKK or Nazi flag, we must understand how low-income whites continue to be demonized in ways that surely foster hatred for liberal society.
It was only a month ago that the Ann Arbor News, and I suspect its chain of newspapers throughout Michigan, carried an infotainment article entitled “The Top Ten Most White Trash Cities in Michigan.” Meant to be funny, it names the top ten places in Michigan with “the most drug-addicted, violent, welfare-receiving white populations.” Its jokes reek of contempt. About Jackson it says: “If you live here there is a good chance you’re makin’ meth.” About Bay City: “when it comes to fighting over that week’s favorite meth slut, you better believe it will be handled bare knuckle to bare knuckle in your trailer’s front yard. Please, please, watch out for the car on cinder blocks and the crapper, and the broken-down mower.” Or Coldwater: “where they fight over what beer is better (Busch or Natural Light) and over who has more teeth.”
That contempt for poor and working people in terms of how they dress, look, live, and their morals is the kind of contempt that will leave people blindly hating others—and yet there still seems little consciousness of this kind of classism in liberal society.
The Inner and the Outer
In her commencement speech, Rowling quotes Plutarch: “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Part of the power of Harry Potter is that it upholds a vision of how what we do inwardly connects to what we can do and achieve in the world. Thus Harry Potter’s overcoming Lord Voldemort and his army is not just about fighting; it is about values and it is about learning to be a good human being. Harry will ultimately be able to conquer Voldemort, not because of magical powers, but because he has been loved and he has learned to love.
And Harry’s love is not just sentiment; he pursues it with the kind of discipline so many baby-boomers resisted—learning how to work really hard, learning to be excellent at things, learning to really care for others, learning to be the best self he can be. For a generation whose parents did everything possible for them, Harry Potter is the image of the opposite of being spoiled. He knows the humility that is born of failure. (4)Part of the result of his humility and caring for others is that Harry learns not to value a gift, or a talent, or power for its own sake or because he possesses it, but only for what it can do for others. Ultimately, this means that while Lord Voldemort has spent his life trying to figure out how never to die, Harry Potter learns how to die, to give up his life so that others can live.
The Prophetic Community
You have perhaps heard the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” According to her daughter Mary Bateson, this actually defined how her mother understood human evolution to happen. That is, each advance in human evolution happens when an individual comes up with a new idea about how to do something, and then a small group begins to practice that new idea, and then over time that idea spreads to others.This means that our evolution as a species depends on small communities of people committed to learning from each other and to learning to live new ideas.
As examples, she points to the community that gathered around Jesus and the community that sparked the American Revolution. In this way, new ideas are dependent on prophetic communities to take root. We see the power of such a community in Harry’s motley, radically diverse community that is not only opposed to the Lord Voldemort and his followers but also rejects the hierarchy of worth that has defined the life and culture of so much of the wizarding community and embraces a vision of a society in which all are valued. Ultimately, that vision of inclusion and their practice of honoring others will have everything to do with why they are ultimately successful in overcoming the evil that is on the verge of destroying their world.
But this new community is not just about core values such as equality, fairness, justice, compassion; at the heart of this new community is also a vision of the mysterious nature of friendship. The series is all about the transformative effect of friendship; how it is the heart of community, how vital is it to having a good life, how central it is to becoming a good human being.(5)
While telling a story about the struggle between good and evil and about how those who wish to be moral agents need to learn to embrace who they are, with all their radical imperfections, and yet still strive to be their best selves, part of the power of this series is that through it Rowling also presents a kind of guide for the soul as she allows her readers to reflect on the whole experience of being human, its joys and sorrows, its incredible pleasures and the kind of pain that leaves you wanting not to be human, how confusing it is to come of age and live in a world where so much of what is outside of you and within you is unknown and changing, and how difficult it is to know what’s important and what is not, what is real and what is a delusion.
I read Moby Dick when I was twelve years old because it was described as, “a fun-filled adventure story for boys.” Reading it that way, I totally missed Melville’s profound meditation on the insanity of racism and where it was leading our country. My hope is that we will wake up to the vision J. K. Rowling has put before us, for she seems to have been able to imagine the world we are now living in, a world where cynicism, fear, and despair are leading people to turn back to worshipping the strong and powerful, the bullies, as their best hope of survival, a world where people are encouraged to turn their backs on and even despise the weak and vulnerable, including their own humanity, a world where the lack of imagination keeps us from seeing and knowing how much we have in common despite and across all our profound differences. As Dumbledore says at one point:”we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. “(6)
Not only was J. K. Rowling able to envision and portray the world we are now living in, but she has also given us a wealth of wisdom about what it means to live a good life and be a good human being in the midst of such a world, and a vision of human agency that is both exciting and encouraging. It’s a vision we need to really be listening to, for it has captured the hearts and minds of a generation in a way that our current political and religious movements have so far failed to do. The question remains, however, whether it will remain simply fantasy literature or become a vision of how we can live in our world, which appears to be approaching the same kind of climactic struggle between good and evil that it portrays.
I would hope we could hear in Harry Potter the call of prophetic community and see in it a vision of what a church community can be:
- A unified community in which we discover common ground and
- A community of truth that doesn’t hide from any reality.
- A community of healing, where we can recover from the wounds
life has left us with.
- A community that welcomes all, including our many and profound differences.
an imaginative community that does not let what is, or what has been,
define what we believe is really possible.
- A courageous community that does not let fear determine our actions,
or the scope of our understanding of what we need to be about.
- A community that embraces death and dying as something that helps us to realize and celebrate our impermanence so that we can use it to make a difference.
- A community of love, with the kinds of friendships at its center
that call us into who we can become.
J. K. Rowling concluded her speech to the new graduates by saying: “We do not need magic to change the world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” She encourages them/us to “use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice;”. . . “to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless;” . . . “to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages,”to help change the realities of “thousands and millions” of people.
That this is possible is the good news of Harry Potter. May it be so! For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.(7 & 8)
1) These statistics came fromWikipedia.
2) The quotes from J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech came from the internet, and have been republished in J. K. Rowling’s wonderful short book Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, published in 2015 by Little, Brown, and Co.
3) I also love these other quotes on the power of imagination from Rowling’s commencement speech:
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize.
4) Within the Harry Potter series you find a profound meditation on death, not only the death of loved ones but also the death of failure, the death of dreams, illusions, and desires. In her commencement speech J. K Rowling s holds up how important the experience of failure has been for her:
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
5) At the end of her commencement speech, Rowling wishes the new graduates the kind of friendships that have been so important in her life. She then concludes:
I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters. I wish you all very good lives.
6) p.723, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
7) Donald Trump has cut Stephen King and JK Rowling off from his Twitter feeds, as they would frequently comment on his tweets. In response to Trump’s tweet insulting Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezinki, Rowling sent out the following tweet: ” ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ Abraham Lincoln June 29th, 2017. ” However, my favorite tweet of hers was the one she sent out even before the U.S. presidential election when on Oct. 7, 2016 we wrote: “If we all hit ctrl-alt-del simultaneously and pray, perhaps we can force 2016 to reboot.”
8) Because of the length of these reflections I did not focus on the scriptures for the day except for the gospel, but each of them helped inspire these reflections.
*Isaiah 51:1-6 holds up a vision of the essence of God as being salvation and deliverance so that even when heaven and earth pass away “My salvation and deliverance will never end.” Thus Isaiah’s word of encouragement–therefore “look to the rock from which you were hewn.” In other words, that salvation and deliverance lives in us.
*Psalm 124 presents a vision of the God who enables our souls to live and who saves us from the enemies who would swallow us up alive.
*Romans 12:1-8: seems to have so many interconnections with Harry Potter as Paul speaks of the renewal of the mind as key to not being conformed to the corrupt world of domination and then goes on to speak of how “we are members of one another” and in that context we need to be humble as we exercise the gifts we have each been given for the common good.
Reflections on sin given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor on Sunday, March 12th. (Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent(A): Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5,13-17, John 3:1-17)
I’m continuing to feel like this Lent is a particularly good time to do some real thinking and talking about evil and sin as our participation in the reign of evil. Our dog Kirby gets excited when he picks up different scents, and lately I’ve been feeling the same way about this topic – so here are a few of the trails I picked up this week.
First, last week I was struck by Hugh’s reminding us of Jim Lewis’s very simple definition of sin as, “living at the expense of others.” I find this clear, simple definition remarkably helpful. Given all the junk we’ve heard and internalized about sin, it can be easy to lose our moral compass to the extent that we can go around feeling totally guilty about things that haven’t really hurt anybody — and at the same time be oblivious to the ways we have caused harm, or allowed harm to happen.
Secondly, I was struck by Charles saying that evolution shows that the story of original sin is not historically accurate. I would add that the idea of original sin isn’t even Biblical, as this idea didn’t even emerge until the 3rd century. As Charles talked about the long evolution of human beings, it occurred to me that there may not have been sin before humans developed our fore brains — that is, before we could imagine a different way of being or acting. But once we had fore brains and we were able to imagine how our actions might affect others – and we still acted in ways that harmed them – that is when the problem of sin began. In other words, perhaps it is our fore brains, like Paul’s vision of the law, that have acted to render us guilty for what we’ve done or failed to do.
Third, after last week’s service, Amy mentioned to me that when she thought about when and where she had really sinned, she was almost always acting to avoid suffering. The implications of her statement are still really resonating with me. I’ve found that so much of personal and collective sin is about disconnection. When we do great harm to others, it’s almost always because we are disconnected from our hearts, minds, bodies, or souls.
Similarly, again and again great collective evils seem to happen when situations have been set up to help us to not see, and are thus disconnected from, the evil that is happening — for example, when people were taught that slaves aren’t equal human beings – or when the situation is so huge and complex that we don’t feel any connection or personal responsibility for the collective evil because our own, individual part in it is so small. Amy’s comment made me think about how often these disconnections are about avoiding suffering. Bryan Stevenson suggests they are often simply about our desire to avoid being uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful, to let ourselves feel our connection or disconnection from ourselves and others.
Fourth, this week on her Facebook page, Dixie wrote that perhaps original sin is about how our attachment to the world we are born into leads us to go along with the injustice that is part of that world. In other words, sin is rooted in our fear of letting go of the world as we have known it.
This really hit me in terms of our readings today, for all of them are about our need to let go of the world and ourselves as we have known them if we wish to live the life of faith, the life of the Spirit, and if we wish to be about the reign of God on earth.
The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic vision of faith begin with today’s story of Abram being called to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house to go into an unknown land. In a world where the stranger was often feared and attacked, Abram is called by God to become a stranger, to embrace the vulnerability of being an alien, as the means of becoming a blessing to others.
That is so powerful. It’s the very opposite of what so many call faith, which is all about holing up, hiding out, and becoming invulnerable. If you really let Abram’s story sink in, you can hear the direct connection between this idea of going forth as a vulnerable stranger and Jesus talking about our being called to the very places where suffering and injustice reigns – to meet God in those places and to become a blessing. You can also hear the connection between this vision and Paul’s letter to the Romans today about blessing being a means of “calling into existing things that do not yet exist.” That’s so powerful for me!
Finally, in our Gospel today we hear Jesus telling Nicodemus (and us) that unless we are willing to let go of who we are, be born again, and live a life led by the spirit – which he compares to being led by a wind which comes from where we known not and leads to where we know not – we are not going to be able to experience the reign of God on earth.
And here Jesus very explicitly says, “I’m not talking about what happens in Heaven, but what happens on Earth. About how, through this different way of living, we can experience the life of God, rather than the life of death, right here, right now, on Earth.
So just to recap – between these three readings, we hear that faith is a journey into the unknown that enables us to become a blessing to others, and that part of this blessing is that it enables new things, new realities, to come into existence.
This vision helps to reveal how so many of the conventional conceptions of sin can keep us from seeing what sin is really about, and also how we can be part of helping to overthrow the reign of evil.
So often, people think about sin as being a choice. We’re here in the middle of the road. The right side of the road is the good side, the left side of the road is the sinister side of the road – and sin is about our choosing to go left rather than right. Being a left-handed leftist, you might suspect I might have trouble with this metaphor, but not for that reason.
Rather, I reject this idea because it suggests that we are standing on neutral ground. If that’s the case – that we start out in the middle and then choose whether to turn right or left – we are absolutely the cause of whatever evil happens, but we’re also not responsible for evil that doesn’t result from our direct actions.
But, as Dixie pointed out, we are not standing on neutral ground. We are born into a world not of our choosing. We are born into a world significantly shaped by a domination system where everything has been organized to control, dominate, and exploit people. We didn’t have a say in whether we were born into the top ranks of this domination system or the bottom. In such a world, sin happens in us and through us not only when we choose to sin, but simply when we fail to imagine and to act to break the ways that we are living at the expense of others. Sin is like the default mechanism. For evil to happen, all we need to do is go along with the way things are.
Here it is perhaps useful to think of the reign of sin in terms of the US at the time of slavery. Everything was set up to deny the slaves’ humanity. The only way to break through this evil was to claim slaves as your sisters and brothers, as flesh of your own flesh and blood of your own blood and then to act to free them from the evil of slavery. But trying to free slaves, or even to treat them as people, was illegal and considered by many to be immoral – and, for the longest time, even the idea of doing so was beyond most people’s imaginations and courage.
To use a more contemporary example, we might look at the current caste system in our country, at all the ways discrimination is perpetuated in terms of who can live where, who can go to school where, what kinds of jobs you have access to or don’t have access to because of where you went to school …
It’s a system that results in a kind of social despair – and the actions born of that despair are then used to justify even further discrimination, resulting in the United States jailing more of our people than any other nation in the world. Not only that, but we’ve created a huge caste of second-class citizens, ex-offenders who have completed their sentences but are still legally discriminated against in such basic aspects of living as housing and employment, and denied the rights of citizenship like voting or serving on a jury.
A key part of the mythic narrative that sustains this unjust system is the false idea that everyone is walking in neutral territory, and therefore the evil that befalls them is their own fault.
But if we reject the idea that we all start in neutral territory, and we instead start with the great evil that exists right here where we are – and then work our way back to how we participate in perpetuating or challenging that evil, we end up with a very different vision of sin.
Suddenly, you can understand why Paul says everything that is not faith is sin, because without faith’s imagination, vision, hope, courage and determination – you end up going along with systems that destroy the lives of millions.
Suddenly, you begin to understand that overcoming evils like starvation is not a matter of needing more technical knowledge to figure out how to produce more food or to get food to those who are hungry, it’s a matter of confronting policies based on narratives that justify neglect and harm. As Bryan Stevenson has pointed out, we will not be able to overcome such evils without challenging the underlying narratives that justify them.
Suddenly you begin to understand that sin – when sin is rightfully seen as cooperation with great evil – is generally not as much about what we do as what we fail to do. It requires imagination to connect the dots, to see how the small role we are playing helps perpetuate these evils. It requires imagination to start to envision how we can begin to take responsibility for addressing these evils.
Suddenly you begin to see the ways our deformed consciences keep us preoccupied with minor things, that may not even really hurt anyone, also keep us from being able to see or address real evil.
Suddenly you begin to understand why Bryan Stevenson says we must be willing to be uncomfortable if we are going to stop helping to perpetuate these evils and begin to help overcome them.
We want our lives to be like the story of the Good Samaritan. We would like being good to be as easy as encountering people who have been left brutalized – and then we get to be the good person who helps to heal them and send them on their way. But our reality is different, because we live in a world in which we can see people being brutalized as it is happening. We live in a world where we can see people about to be brutalized before it happens.
This means there is no more neutral ground. We can wait until the beating is over and then help those who have been harmed, or we can intervene to stop or prevent the beating – which will bring us into direct conflict with those doing the harm. Either way, we are no longer bystanders. Either way, we have to really wrestle with what it means for us to be part of God’s reign of love and justice here on Earth in a way that those who want to restrict the concept of sin to what we individually do wrong aren’t willing to consider.
Letting go of a world view that says we’re little self-contained individual units that are only responsible for those we immediately bump up against leaves you incredibly vulnerable, but this is not a bad thing, for as Brene Brown says:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
In W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio the three wise men say: “To discover how to be human now/ Is the reason we follow this star.” These are words that suggest that our becoming human is dependent on our being led by revelation and what’s beyond our conscious minds.
Recently Donna and I got to hear the great Native America poet Joy Harjo speak and read her poems. Again and again, she talked about words being given to her and about stories coming to her that wanted to be spoken. That’s the language of prophecy. That’s the language of a person who’s willing to be led, of someone who recognizes that our conscious minds know only a small portion of what we know and that our egoistic minds know even less.
Only by being willing to enter the darkness of the womb of the unknown can we begin to look beyond to see what our corrupted vision would keep us from seeing, can we think the thoughts our corrupted minds would keep us from thinking, can we feel the feelings our corrupted hearts don’t want us to feel.
Please don’t misunderstand me – the conscious mind and rationality are terribly important to give us greater understanding, but if we limit our understanding to what they have to tell us we will always be driving into the future looking backwards.
Workers for justice are dependent on the creative vision of artists and poets and prophets to help us see, know and feel what we have been educated not to see, know and feel. If to live fully in the present we need to understand our past, we also can only come to that future world we have never been to, but which our hearts know of as home, by becoming co-creators of that future. But to embark on that journey require us to let go of and become a stranger to the world and ourselves as we have known them through embracing the unknown, and with it – that which we can’t see for it doesn’t yet exist.
And if we are willing, God is able – and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen.
Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on February 26th, 2017 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation(Readings for the Last Sunday of Epiphany: Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9)
The mountaintop story we hear today is the turning point in our gospel. From this mountain, Jesus will set his face towards Jerusalem to do the non-violent actions that will lead to his arrest and execution. For Peter, James, and John it is a moment in which they finally see Jesus with heavenly eyes: as one in whom the glory of God shines brilliantly, as one who talked to and was the equal of Moses and Elijah, as one through whom God spoke.
While our Epistle emphasizes that the disciples had the same revelation that Jesus heard in his baptism – that Jesus is God’s beloved son and one with whom God is well pleased – I would suggest the accent should be on the final line: “Listen to him!” That is, it’s not just about Jesus being one with God, but what God is saying through Jesus.
So often those who claim Jesus as the Son of God seems to think that what he taught can be ignored. At no time do I think we need to listen more closely to what Jesus is saying to us through his actions than in these events leading up to his death.
For Jesus and these three disciples, the mountaintop will be a last heavenly vision before the waters become incredibly dark and murky.
Up to this point, Jesus has spent his time primarily in Galilee trying to teach people about the nature of God and the way of God. He’s tried to show them how they can live the will of God here on earth through: sharing their food, forgiving debts, healing and caring for one another, standing up against injustice and prejudice, learning how to read the scriptures, practicing equality, speaking truthfully, and praying and learning to live from a place of trust and thanksgiving.
Whereas other religious teachers of the time spent their time primarily interpreting biblical texts, Jesus taught primarily through telling stories, parables, which forced his listeners to reflect on their own experience and determine for themselves the truth of the story.
Now, Jesus is going to Jerusalem, where he is going to engage in a re-telling of the story of the Hebrew faith. He’s going to challenge people with a vision of a new, very different kind of Exodus story.
And this time he’s not just going to tell a story, he’s going to act it out so that it will be a story that people will never forget.
If our enslavement were basically about evil people, Jesus could have become another Caesar or zealot committed to killing the oppressor. If our enslavement was simply about bad ideas, wrong thinking, than Jesus could have simply stayed a teacher.
But Jesus recognizes that the enslavement of humankind is not a simple as bad people, or bad ideas. It is about people and institutions embodying bad ideas, and the only way to exorcise these spirits and overcome these bad ideas was to confront them in a bodily form and force them to reveal themselves for who and what they were–not Godly dominion or faithfulness-but cowardice, prejudice, fear, greed, and the rejection of the living God.
Jesus will pursue a strategy that forces these people and institutions to do exactly that, knowing that the reign of lies can only continue as long as it wears the mask of truth, knowing that domination in the name of religion can only continue as long as people don’t know and don’t experience the God of redemptive love.
Jesus knows that this revelation will come at a great price, the price of his life, and yet he willingly embraces his death that we might know life. But worse — yes, there is a worse — Jesus knows the time is coming soon when he is going to have to trust his disciples to carry on this work after he is gone. How terrifying that idea must have been, that Jesus’ work was going to depend on those beloved but bumbling, uneducated but hard-headed and often closed-minded, heroic yet often egotistical, group he called his friends. Jesus must have longed for more time to prepare his disciples before entrusting the world to them, but there was no more time.
And it strikes me that today we are also there, on that mountaintop with Peter, James, John, and Jesus. In the resurrected Christ, we too have seen Jesus in all his glory.
Like Jesus, we have had glimpses of seeing how love is the only reality that matters.
Even though love can appear so weak and vulnerable in the face of violence and physical force, in the end Love is what is eternal. It is so important for us to have these mountaintop experiences, to be renewed in their light, to see our lives and world through heavenly eyes, and yet…..looking down from this mountain into that valley we are confronted with the complexity of this human experience and the dilemma we are facing as a species and a world.
If people and institutions embodying bad ideas are what’s keeping people enslaved and keeping humanity moving towards extinction, how can we best overcome these bad ideas?
If lies reign by wearing the mask of truth, how do we best get lies to reveal themselves?
If this is primarily a spiritual battle, how do we stay grounded in love and the unitive vision that is the grounds of wholeness, healing and peace, especially when facing facing bullying, violence, murder, and ugliness?
If it is not just a matter of ideas and spirits, but how they are embodied in people and institutions and practices, how do we engage people and institutions and practices in such a way as to lead them to change?
And in all this, how do we recognize and embrace our own weakness, limits, and fallibility as human beings – human beings whose God often appears so very weak in comparison to the gods of wealth, military power, and physical coercion?
This mountaintop on which we can see clearly is incredibly important. We need to not only revisit it when we can, but also to carry it within us.
At the same time, something stands between us here on this mountaintop and the next one – the mountaintop on which we all recognize that our humanity is inextricably bound with one another’s. *
Between this mountaintop and that new world is a dark valley, a valley with a wide, deep, cold and muddy river – and we’ll only come to that next mountaintop, to that glorious new world, if we are willing to wade into the turbulent waters that face us.
But if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to make a way for us.
*This is a paraphrase of Desmond Tutu’s definition of “ubuntu”: “the awareness that ‘my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.'”
Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given on December 11th, 2016 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent(A): Isaiah 58:1-10, Psalm 146-4-9, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11)
Advent is about the coming of God and in Isaiah today we hear what this means. It is the time when the desert shall rejoice and blossom with joy and singing. It is the time when the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leap like a dear, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. It is the time when the outcasts shall come home with joy upon their heads and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
But our brother Matthew, the author of the gospel we have begun reading this Advent, has a problem. There are folks who think that the coming of God happens simply by people believing something. There are folks who think that to prepare for God by following in the way of Jesus, all you need to do is participate in church services and perform miracles of healing.
In a very different way, we see Matthew trying to tackle some of the same problems Paul was tacking several decades earlier.
Matthew’s whole gospel is a fiery assault on what he sees as the hypocrisy of the idea that you can be a Christian without doing the kinds of things that Jesus did: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, reaching out to those in prison, overthrowing injustice, working for social equality. In a nation where so much of Christianity has been co-opted and used to justify the very domination system, with all its injustice and neglect, that Jesus gave his life to challenge, I find Matthew’s gospel like a cool drink of water in a hot and dry dessert. But to hear Matthew’s gospel in this way you need to get rid of the domination lens through which we’ve been taught to read this gospel and instead hear Matthew as a brother desperately trying to get people to hear the Good News as something other than simple superstition.
Last week we heard Matthew’s fire coming through the mouth of John the Baptist. John is going after those who think that because they are ethnically Jewish and uphold the traditions of the past, as both the Pharisees and the Sadducees do, that they are somehow okay. John’s words set them straight on this: “You brood of vipers– who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Luke’s version of this text helps to articulate what John means by bearing fruit that befits repentance: Let the one who has two coats share with the one who has none. Let the one who has food share with the one who has none. Tax collectors –stop stealing from people. Soldiers–stop robbing people through coercion and the threat of violence. The fruit is all about actions. It is the brass tacks kind of stuff that needs to happen if everyone is going to be able to experience the reign of love.
On the surface we hear a message aimed at Jews calling them to wake up from their complacency and arrogance and turn back to the faith of the prophets, but beneath that surface I believe what we are hearing is a message addressed to Christians who are doing something similar. While they may not be thinking that being ethnically Jewish makes them part of God’s in-group–they are thinking that because they have affirmed a belief in Christianity that they are now part of it. To them, Matthew is saying: “Hold on–not so fast. The gospel of Jesus is not just about words and beliefs–it is about deeds and actions. It’s not just about proclaiming the reign of love–it’s about doing the work of love. The kingdom of God is not just about an afterlife–it is about how you are living and what you are doing here and now to love and care for others.”
We hear Paul speak directly about these problems in his letters to the church in Corinth. Communion was meant to be an enactment of God’s feast of love for all, so it was held by having big meals together. But in the church at Corinth, by the time the poorer workers arrive from working in the fields all the food has been eaten by the wealthy and those who didn’t have to work such long hours. Paul says that this transforms the Eucharist thanksgiving feast, into a kind of anti-communion that heaps burning coals on those who participate in it.
The congregation in Corinth prided itself on all the miracles they were able to perform in Jesus’ name. Later in Matthew’s Gospel we will hear Jesus denounce such Christians saying: “I don’t know you. For when I was hungry you didn’t feed me, when I was thirty you gave me nothing to drink, when I was naked you didn’t clothe me, when I was in prison you didn’t visit me.” When those Christians cry out, “Lord when did we fail to do these things for you” Jesus responds, “when you didn’t do these things for the least of my sisters and brothers you didn’t do them for me.”
When I was lost in a Catholic Charismatic Christian community that passage helped to wake me up. One of its leaders had told me that doing the work of justice was like being a garbage collector in the Kingdom of God. Coming across that passage I thought, “Well, I’d rather be true to what I know, and if that means I’m a garbage collector in the kingdom of God–so be it.”
Matthew’s gospel is a hell of a message in a country where so many Christians imagine Christianity is simply about caring for your own family, or the people in your own church, or the people in your own community.
Matthew’s message rains salt and fire on those who have gotten lost in religious babel, who have come to believe that religion is about power and glory and wealth and status. Contradicting this, Matthew says the faith of Jesus the Messiah is a faith in a God who operates in human history, who works through people, to bring about the reign of love on earth here and now. It’s not a faith that’s going to make you wealthy. It’s a faith that will lead you to be persecuted as you stand up for the oppressed and against injustice, as you challenge those, like King Herod and those like him, whose wealth and power and privilege comes at the expense of others and who will do everything to violently defend them.
If you believe that radical social inequality causes all kinds of terrible suffering, leading up to the destruction of those civilizations that practice it- you may begin to be able to hear John the Baptist’s and Matthew’s harsh words in a different light.
This last week I read an article about the work of an historian who says that, in general, in human history, we have not moved towards greater social equality except through total disaster. For example, the collapse of the Roman empire and the plagues that came with it, the bubonic plague during the middle ages, and the aftermath of World War II all marked periods where we saw society move towards greater social equality.
Do we have to wait for that kind of disaster, or is there another way? For Matthew and John there is another way, but it can’t be just a matter of thinking or talking in certain ways, or believing certain things, it’s got to be a matter of doing the work of justice and the deeds of love.
Jesus ended up looking and sounding nothing like the messiah John was expecting. John seems to have been expecting the kind of Messiah who would ride in on a white horse with a big sword to slay the wicked. Thus it is not surprising, as we hear today, that John would send some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the messiah or whether they are to await another.
And Jesus‘ response is powerful. He doesn’t hold himself up, he instead points to the fruit of his work: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are experiencing the good news.” John would have recognized these from the writings of the prophet Isaiah as signs of the reign of God.
Jesus then ends with talking to the crowds about John. He says, John was a real prophet (not a court prophet) as seen in his willingness to rough it in the wilderness and his steadfastly speaking out despite all the threats he faced. John is even more than a prophet for he’s helped to usher in the new age. Then in words that are confusing, mysterious, challenging and exciting, Jesus concludes: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist: yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
In a world that was all about lineage Jesus follows John in proclaiming, God doesn’t really give a hoot about lineage. Matthew affirms this message in the beginning of his gospel when he goes out of his way to point out Joseph’s royal lineage only then to say, but Jesus wasn’t really Joseph’s biological son. In other words, Jesus is a good example of how God can raise children out of the stones themselves.
Jesus is holding up John as a prophet who cried out for justice, but appears to be saying there was also something missing in John’s proclamation. Was it that the kind of language where John compares people to dead trees that need to be burned was lacking in love? I don’t know, but that certainly seems to be the case. Jesus holds up John as a prophet of repentance, but repentance is apparently not the same thing as entering the reign of God. Something more is needed.
Lastly, Jesus challenges John’s disciples to look around them and see how the poor, the handicapped, the sick, the lost, all those who have been viewed as less than, are coming back to life. This means that when Jesus turns towards these same crowds and says to them that any of them can be greater than John, he is holding up a vision of the last having becoming first, those who had seen themselves as lost and forsaken being able to be, like John, ambassadors of God and somehow even greater than John.
God’s kingdom, power, and glory have nothing to do with wealth. They have nothing to do with status, but they are as real as the glory you see in the evening sunset, or the millions of stars you can see in the Milky Way, or in a person who has been dead and who has come back to life through realizing who they are and what they are and where and how they can make a difference in this world.
And if we are willing God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen.
Image courtesy Eustaquio Santimano via Flickr.