“The Easter Revolution” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on April 1st, 2018. (Readings for Easter: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-8)
The Lord is Risen! The Lord is risen Indeed. Alleluia!!
That simple greeting points towards the same mystery that Mark’s empty tomb points towards. It’s a mystery about a spiritual revolution that happened 2,000 years ago after Jesus of Nazareth, challenged the powers of death in his society and bore the full brunt of the humiliating death that they had designed for those who challenged the public order. But then, something completely unexpected happened. Where people had been taught to have contempt for those in whom they saw their own weakness, their own helplessness, which is why public lynchings were such an effective tool used to discourage those who did or might consider reforming society, people responded in an opposite way. Yes—they saw in Jesus one like them, one of the despised, one of the lowly, one of the humiliated, but they also saw God, a God who was one of the lowly, a God willing to be despised, a God willing to be humiliated, and somehow this tore down the walls that were keeping them from experiencing God’s love for them and knowing their inherent dignity and worth.
The concrete evidence of the resurrection is not the empty tomb, nor stories of angels or resurrected bodies that can pass through walls, rather it is the historical evidence of the transformation of Jesus’ disciples who, according to Mark’s account of them, may have been lovable but were also pretty thick headed, hard hearted, and unimaginative. People who Jesus complained had eyes but could not see, ears but could not hear, mouths but could not speak, hearts but could not love. That same group of people, following his death and resurrection, end up being like Jesus of Nazareth in terms of possessing his same vision and insight, his courage and passionate love for people and this world, and his incredible imagination. Where once the empire only had to contend with one Jesus of Nazareth—now it has to contend with ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand—going into every culture and nation of the world to take on the powers of death, the powers that hold people captive, the powers that delude some people into thinking they and their lives are of no worth, the powers that delude other people into thinking their lives are more worth than the lives of others, tearing down the gates of hell, bit by bit, slowly over time, even at a great personal cost. Christianity is the only world religion I know of whose founder was executed by the state, but it’s not just Jesus who was executed, but so many of those early disciples which tells you something about the kind of world changing work they were engaged in. I believe in one of the only Roman reports we have about Jesus of Nazareth, it is reported that he is stirring up trouble among the slaves in Rome. This was written decades after Jesus’ death, but the author apparently believes he is alive.
The great mystery of Easter is where, why, when, and how did this transformation of the disciples happen? It is a question we really need to understand for we are at a time in world history when, just when we are needing bold, courageous, imaginative, caring, moral leadership, we see common people, despairing of the possibility of democracy and self-rule, standing back as strong-men and the forces of corruption and brute force are moving in to thwart the hope of justice, peace, and equality and are stealing whatever wealth they can through governmental institutions. It seems evident to me that either humanity is going to experience some kind of new moral, spiritual, imaginative revival—or we are going to head much further into an incredible dark night of suffering that seems to have already begun.
So today, I want to make several points about what we can learn from this spiritual revolution we call Easter.
First, I’d like to emphasize how much imagination and creativity are essential to this revolution. At the heart of the life of the Holy Spirit is the kind of creativity and imagination that we see in Jesus and that we see bloom and blossom in the community that forms after his death. That community sought to live as a community of the beloved, not only through practicing loving one another through things like holding all things in common, but also in reaching out in love to those not in their community through feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and adopting orphaned babies and children and refusing to serve in the military. Let’s also note how unafraid and bold and creative early Christians were in using the stories and traditions of various cultures to try to communicate this mysterious revolution, whether it was by telling the Jesus story in terms of the cult of the Emperor Augustus, or relating Jesus birth to the birth of the sun, or seeing Jesus as an incarnation of the Goddess Sophia, or in naming his resurrection day for the Goddess Easter. It goes on and on. That willingness to go into every culture and make those kinds of connections says so much about the kind of world-overcoming faith they had and how it is so connected to creativity and imagination.
It is the same kind of imaginative creativity that we see in the spiritual revolution that happened around 1200 BC, over 3,000 years ago, when a group of former Egyptian slaves began to create a new society in the land that would become known as Israel.
That small band of people, who understood freedom to be an essential value, had the courage to imagine a society in which people refused to worship domination in any form: political, economic, or religious. Up until then, nations had been organized around military-temple states united to expand their power and wealth through the domination and exploitation of others and with religious systems that defined who was in and who was out, who was up and who was down. In contrast, this confederation, which came to be known as the Kingdom of God because it had no king but God, was to have no king, no religious hierarchy, no standing army and if they had to go to war, they were not allowed to profit from it in any way. Instead their life was to be organized around the principals of self-government, which are embodied in the covenant we call the ten commandments, and mutual aid.
That society only lasted two hundred years before a new generation looked enviously on the surrounding nations and decided they wanted to be like them and have a king. That society would go on to become a great empire, just like Egypt, before it was destroyed. But the legacy, challenge, and impact of those two hundred years of the Kingdom of God can be seen all the way through the prophets who kept that vision alive in the rural areas of Israel, through Jesus who took up and expanded this vision of the Kingdom of God, through to those movements and nations who two thousand years later would began to develop and expand the vision of democracy, through to the present where we may no longer worship kings and power over others and yet we hold onto various aspects of the paradigm of domination, even as its consequences are so evident in in terms of the impoverishment of the majority of people in our world and the ecological devastation it is causing to our planet. If the peoples of our world are going to be able to transcend the tradition, scripts and ideologies we’ve inherited that are causing such great harm—we need the kind of moral-spiritual revolution that will help people claim the authority they have simply by virtue of being human, and empower them to bring an end to what is death dealing and promote what is life giving—for the sake of all. This week is the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s murder and I hope to be exploring more about Dr. King in the coming weeks, but let me say not that King was assassinated precisely for trying to organize this kind of moral and spiritual revolution.
Secondly, it is striking that in the gospel story and from what we know from history, this kind of spiritual revolution is not dependent on numbers. It begins as a seed. It begins with one person willing to see in themselves the evil their world is contending with and to finding the antidote to that poison. It spreads to a small group of people. Slowly over time it keeps growing. Jesus says, “If you but had faith you could say to this mountain “Be taken up and cast into the sea” and it will be done.” In the context within which Jesus was speaking he was not talking about moving a physical mountain, he was talking about something much bigger—he was talking about the mountain of the military-temple state located on temple mount, he was talking about the Roman empire. He was talking about the kind of faith that, though it begins with a small group of people, can create a new kind of humanity and transform the whole world.
Third, the ability to experience this kind of spiritual power, vision, and creativity seems directly related to overthrowing the shame which keeps us living isolated, cut off from ourselves, cut off from God, cut off from one another. Shame internalized becomes self-contempt and self-contempt has everything to do with our silence in the face of injustice, our ability to speak with authority, our unwillingness to trust our creative imaginations. Part of the mystery of Easter is that the shame and contempt that the cross was meant to inflict, became for Jesus and his followers a way of overthrowing the dominion of shame, the disgrace that cast over all the peoples of the world, so that, in Isaiah’s words, people can enjoy the feast of life and the night of sadness and loneliness can come to an end.
Easter proclaims that we are no longer alone. The waters of forgiveness and loving kindness have freed us from shame and self-contempt. No longer having to hide from ourselves, or from one another, the result is an outpouring of a world overcoming love, a love that wells up within us flowing down like a mighty river. Sustained and sustaining others through this love, the past no longer controls our futures, we have the power to determine where and how we want to act to love and care for others, ourselves, and our world.
Lastly, the spiritual revolution of Easter challenges us with a vision of a whole new way of being human. Being human is no longer about looking better or worse than in the eyes of others. For so many religious folks religion is about wanting to consider ourselves better than others so we can view ourselves as among the saved. But rather than basing our identity on judging and separating ourselves from others, Jesus challenges us to understand ourselves within a vision of our shared common humanity, God with us, God with humanity. Jesus is not afraid of the impurity or weaknesses, or illnesses, of others. He embraces them in love. With this kind of love, this being in solidarity with others, even with those who frighten or repulse us, the differences that were so important to us become so much less important and the door is opened for transformation.
I’m struck by Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant in which the prophet becomes so indistinguishable from the people of Israel that in those texts you often cannot tell whether God is speaking to the prophet, or to the people, and in the end it doesn’t really seem to matter as through the prophet God acts to bless the people and transform their weakness into strength, their sadness into joy, their suffering and lostness into forgiveness and wisdom.
We see Jesus does something similar with his vision of “The Human One.” Sometimes when Jesus is talking about the Human One he seems to be talking about himself, other times he is talking about a way of being human that is being held up for all to follow. It’s a vision of a new resurrected humanity. It suggests that the glory of “I AM” is to be found less in the “I” and more in the birth of the “We.” How can we act to address whatever needs to be addressed?
One of the places where you see the full implications of this new vision is in the Maori translation of the Lord’s prayer which is found inThe New Zeeland Book of Common Prayer. Instead of saying “forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, which is commonly understood to mean I should forgive those who have hurt me, this translation says—“In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.” “In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.” It’s not about me versus you. It’s a vision of sin as a collective human problem that must be addressed collectively. This is not to say we don’t each have a role in either the ways we help perpetuate the rule of sin, or in helping to overthrow it, but it is so different than an approach that blames individuals, ourselves or others.
I think we have barely begun to understand what embracing our collective humanity means. For some it could be an excuse not to be differentiated, whereas we can see Jesus was very well differentiated, he knew who he was and who he wasn’t. But “being with” strikes at the heart of the foundations of the Imperial Self that always goes hand in hand with empires and the ideologies they perpetuate. To me it says that the river of understanding, creative, redemptive, good will is not just about something we need to let ourselves experience and show towards others, it is a river that is going to transform the very grounds on which we stand in terms of how we understand ourselves and our selves in relationship to each other and how we live together.
Mark’s gospel begins with the heavens cracked open and Jesus hearing the voice of God proclaim him beloved, “with you I am well pleased.” Mark’s gospel ends with a vision of an empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus calling the disciples back to Galilee. From there this same group of poor, uneducated, disciples, who for so long seemed so dense, will follow Jesus into all the world proclaiming not just a resurrected Jesus, but a resurrected humanity:
*human beings who no longer reject their humanity but embrace it as a divine gift,
*human beings who were forged in fear and shame but who are now reborn through love and grace and freedom,
*human beings not fleeing evil but walking towards it trying to understand how to overcome it,
*human beings who having experienced forgiveness, don’t use it as an excuse to tolerate oppression and injustice, but use it as the grounds to non-violently struggle with oppression and injustice,
* human beings not waiting for the world to change, but who understand that, in Paul’s words, all of creation is groaning for the birth of a new humanity, human beings who know the glory of the children of God because they are no longer enslaved to fear and shame,
*human beings who have so come to know and experience the love of God that they have come to believe that, in Paul’s words “we are more than conquerors” through the One who loves us” and that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39
May this Easter we open our hearts and minds to discover what it might mean for us and for our world if we came to live fully from this place and, overthrowing the rule of shame, claim the authority of the Human One and imagine and create the kind of society which honors all God’s children and God’s creation. 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
“The Coming of the Human One” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on March 25th, 2018. (Readings for Palm Sunday-B: Mark 11:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2,19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:15-47)
“Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:19-24)
Sometimes we read things without ever really stopping to think about them. In this case, what are the gates of righteousness and how do they relate to the stone that the builder’s rejected?
You can find the phrase “the stone the builder’s rejected” written over the front door way to this chapel. This text is the guiding vision for how this chapel was built using building materials judged not worthy of new construction and built by African American young men who are so often rejected in our society. It’s a text that captures so much of what the beloved community is to be about: a gateway to salvation, a gateway to people knowing themselves and others as beloved, a gateway to people helping bring about the reign of love here on earth. Today we see this text come to life in all its fullness.
Palm Sunday is the day where we see clearly how different Jesus was then so many religious teachers, miracle workers, and church leaders. Jesus could have stayed a religious teacher and built up a group of disciples who learned and practiced his teachings. Instead he chooses to confront the powers of domination, embodied in the religious-military state, to reveal them for who and what they are —knowing that his actions will likely result in his own death.
Today, the last Sunday of Lent, we see the clear difference between the self-denial the church so often likes to hold up as the way of Jesus and the way of the cross. Practices of self-denial can be helpful, but notice that when we’re practicing them we’re still in control. In many ways they are often about giving us more control. I can live with less food, less sugar, less alcohol, less sleep. But crucifixion is all about the risk of losing control, the risk of others gaining control over our bodies, our needs, our feelings.
There is a way in which choosing the way of the cross seems almost impossible for it goes against so much that is so important to us. You can understand why churches would prefer to talk about self-denial. People that practice self-denial can learn to be more loving, more kind, they may even be able to give more to the church! But the way of the cross –that’s not likely to be in your institutional self-interest. By definition it’s about something scandalous, something that seems shameful, something that provokes conflict.
Society honors those who are simply kind or charitable towards others. But if you challenge injustice, if you challenge domination and exploitation, they are going to say vicious things about you—at least until your dead. Go back and look at how most newspapers in our country were speaking of Martin Luther King in the year before he died as he was trying to challenge the economic caste system in this country through the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. The nicer ones talked about him condescendingly like he had simply lost his mind or become a fool. You poke a hornet’s nest like the Roman or American Empire and you are going to suffer real consequences. You start to become successful in challenging the status quo and the powers that are profiting from the status quo will do all in their powers to shut you down–one way or the other.
Here I want to give a shout-out to the protests yesterday and the youth who are leading the way towards greater sanity around gun ownership. For myself, I don’t think it’s the 2nd Amendment that’s the problem, it’s the fact that it’s been turned into an idol. All the rights outlined in our constitution are a careful balancing of different rights. For example, we freely accept that there are qualifications to our freedom to speech. You cannot shout fire in a crowded movie theater. You cannot say false things about people in a way that harms them. We regulate different kinds of hate speech. But even though the second amendment speaks of a well “regulated” militia we have many people who interpret this to me that there can be no restrictions placed on gun ownership. Now when people turn something into an idol—and you challenge that idol—they will feel like you are threatening their fundamental well-being. If we begin to be successful in having more sensible gun regulations—I suspect we will see some of the kinds of violent responses we saw when the idol of segregation was challenged.
Jesus actions today are one of the significant roots of the philosophy of non-violent resistance that Gandhi gleaned from the New Testament and that Martin Luther King came to understand through Gandhi, and that many parts of the world have now come to understand through the teachings of Martin Luther King. It’s a philosophy that says that you must bring the inherent conflicts that underlie any domination system to the surface through actions that provoke a response. It’s in the system’s response that the truth that has been hidden, or denied, is hopefully revealed for all to see. The powers continually claim that their use of violence is always a response to violence, but because you do all this non-violently their violence is revealed for the evil that it is. Through this whole process, the oppressed recover their humanity as they are no longer being controlled by the shame and humiliation which you feel when you cooperate with evil and your own oppression because you are afraid. Far from being some kind of naïve willingness to be slaughtered, because non-violence helps resurrect conscience in the population at large, generally far fewer people are killed in non-violent struggles than are killed in even small wars.
This is what Jesus is about on this day. While on the surface, it might appear Jesus and his disciples were simply engaged in some nice spontaneous religious procession (which is how the church often wants to portray it) this whole procession has been carefully planned and thought through. Arrangements like having a donkey have been set up in advance. It is timed to happen as large crowds are gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Celebrating that story of deliverance while living under military occupation and domination produced all sorts of tensions that frequently led to riots and even uprisings. One this same day coming through another gate on the opposite side of the city the Roman Legion is having a strikingly different kind of procession– a large military parade— partly as a warning to the population about their need to keep their anger and frustration in check.
It’s in the midst of all this dramatic tension that Jesus acts out a messianic prophecy from Zechariah (9:9-12). As seen in the response of the crowds, everyone recognized this prophecy which says: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass.” (When Kings approached a city with war on their minds they would ride on a horse, but if they were approaching in peace they would ride on a donkey.) This prophecy goes on to speak of how God will act through this messiah to “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” The Romans would have greeted this kind of message of an alternative empire, one built on peace not war, with about as much enthusiasm as Herod must have felt at the news of a new king being born. The prophecy goes on to say: “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope: today I declare that I will restore to you double.”
This is not what you would call an innocuous text. When Jesus turns it into a kind of public art which engages all those who witness it—he’s clearly provoking a response. Romans and their proxies in the Temple-State would not allow this public witness to a different value system and so you know that from the time of this parade they must have been plotting for when and where they could capture and dispose of this threat.
By the way, we call our form of worship liturgies. Liturgy is a Latin word meaning “a public work done at a private cost.” For example, in the Roman empire private citizens paid for and built public roads at their own expense. This was called a liturgy. This Palm Sunday liturgy that Jesus enacts was indeed a public good done at a private cost.
“Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:19-24)
So today we see Jesus enter through the gates of Jerusalem witnessing to a different value system and a different kind of social order, but what are the gates of righteousness and how are they related to the rejected stone? Today I want to suggest that those gates and the rejected stone are our humanity.
It seems to me the military-religious paradigm of domination is based on the premise that being human is a problem. It needs to be rejected. It needs to be overcome. But Jesus shows us that this rejected humanity is the chief cornerstone on which the new heavens and the new earth are to be built.
Thus when Jesus enters that armed fortress city we call Jerusalem, simply as a vulnerable human being who comes in peace, without any army, without any power over others, he is fundamentally challenging the foundations of the military/religious state. He is revealing how our vulnerable humanity is the gateway through to being able to in right relationship, is the gateway through to being able to overthrow the domination system, is the gateway through to being able to able to release those the domination system holds as captives. As the prophet Isaiah says: “Thus says Yahweh ‘Those captives to the mighty will be retaken; the prey of the strong will be rescued.’” (Isaiah 49:25)
Jesus has been talking about the way of the Human One. It is about loving and service—not power over others. It is about knowing God’s glory through sharing and caring—not wealth or through putting ourselves above others. It’s about letting ourselves be loved and helping others know themselves as beloved. Now we see Jesus take this to a whole new level.
Today we see Jesus, the embodiment of the Human One, the embodiment of God’s beloved, confront the greatest power on earth, confront the greatest gods on earth, openly and joyfully. Though our songs may sound triumphant they are not the triumph of military songs, they are the triumph of jubilant children, they are the song of truth and human dignity over the power of wealth and the wealth of power.
By approaching them non-violently and with songs of love, Jesus calls the powers to account in the way we hear Isaiah speak of today: “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting…who will contend with me—let us stand up together.” Jesus forces the powers into a truth struggle they are not prepared for because their power is ultimately based on lies, denial, and coercion.
And here, those gates that Jesus is entering become not just the gates to Jerusalem, as the embodiment of the domination system, but also the gates to the domination system as it is embodied in us, the ways those systems have programed us to act and think and feel. Here it is not just the powers that Jesus won’t let off the hook, but we ourselves and all our stinking thinking about who we need to be and how we need to act in order to be successful, in order to be respected, in order to be effective. As our gates rise to open to the vision of the Human One, it is our captive souls that are freed.
As I look at our world, it is still clear to me Jesus’ vision of the Human One is still struggling to be born. Humanity has made some significant progress in how women and children and the poor and the ill are viewed and treated, but we still have far too go. We can see the vision of the Human One in so much of our art and music and literature and what we proclaim in our various religious faiths, but at the same time humanity continues to hold onto the paradigm of domination as seen in the fact that at the end of the day the majority of all the discretionary income our government receives through our taxes still goes to our military, another huge percentage goes to incarcerate more people on earth than any other country, and so much of our public and personal wealth goes to sustaining institutions that create and perpetuate elites and other institutions that keep people down.
In the midst of our divided humanity, Jesus comes to us who have been taught to deny, disconnect and disassociate ourselves from our humanity, because we are ashamed of it, saying open the gates of your hearts and I will enter them and I will teach you how, through embracing your humanity, you can become a temple of the Holy Spirit and you can come to know the glory of being a child of the Most high, a co-creator of a new heavens and a new earths.
Like the disciples most of us don’t feel ready, but as Annie Dillard said:
There is no one but us.
There is no one to send,
Nor a clean hand
Nor a pure heart
on the face of the earth,
Nor in the earth
But only us…
…unfit, not yet ready,
Having each of us chosen wrongly,
Made a false start, failed,
Yielded to impulse
And the tangled comfort of pleasures,
And grown exhausted,
Unable to seek the thread,
Weak, and uninvolved.
But there is no one but us.
There has never been.
(Excerpt from “No One But Us” from her book Holy the Firm)
And so, ready or not, it’s time for us to go. It’s time for us to follow, as Jesus leads us into all the world and in the process helps us to recover the fullness of our humanity and the life of our souls.
The domination systems that promise to save us, protect us, make us thrive, are what are keeping us from discovering, and recovering and living into the fullness of the incredible divine gift of being human. As we enter this holy week, let us embrace the rejected stone of our humanity and help give birth to the new earth and the new humanity struggling to be born and on this day cry out with the children and the stones themselves: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” 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
“Seeing and Salvation” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on March 11th, 2018. (Readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent-B: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21)
Sing: “Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”*
(*From the Spirit Singing Band’s version of e.e. cummings “i thank You God for most this amazing day”)
I love the way our scriptures today connect salvation, as the deliverance from the dominion of death, to sight. It helps us to get away from seeing sin, harming others or harming ourselves, primarily in terms of intent and choosing to do wrong. Because while we may blame people for what they choose or don’t choose to do, generally we understand that, at least in the moment, whether someone can see something or their vision is impaired—is not something we blame them for. It’s either something they can or cannot do.
What if our greatest sins have little to do with intent and are more about a failure of imagination, our inability to see the consequences of our actions, or our failure to act? What if they have little to do with consciousness and are more about unconsciousness? What if they are less about what we choose to do and more about what we fail to do? What if our preoccupation with intent is more about our wanting to feel we have control over sin, than actually about our taking sin seriously? What if this focus on conscious choice is simply our way of avoiding having to take responsibility for the great evils we face by blaming others?
If we understand that great evils happen in the absence of consciousness, for example through our inability to see the consequences of our actions, or our inability to see the humanity of another, then it enables us to move away from blaming others to focusing on the question of what will help us and others to see. What would have helped German Christians to see the humanity of Jews the way they were able to see the humanity of their disabled relatives who they fought for? What kept white slaveholders from seeing the humanity of their African American slaves including their own children that they had had by them? What for so long kept many men from seeing the humanity of women—even their wives and daughters? How is it through much of human history people didn’t even seem to see the full humanity of their own children? What keeps our oil company executives from seeing the consequences of their lying about the effects of their carbon pollution on our environment?
We don’t want to give others, or ourselves, a moral pass for our inability to see. (This is exactly what ends up happening when everyone focuses on conscious choice.) But we want to take seriously this idea that perhaps the reign of sin is better understood as the reign of a kind of blindness, of a lack of consciousness, or a lack of commitment to consciousness, then it is a matter of conscious choice to do harm.
If the reign of sin and death is rooted in a kind of inner blindness, we can understand the importance of the way Jesus’ confronted his disciples about their inability to see. (In the gospels, the disciples inability to see is contrasted with those who were healed and have gained their sight.) One of the great mysteries the gospels invite us to enter into and explore is why and how this group of unseeing disciples—come to a place where they are able to see, how in the words of Ephesians, they going from “being in the darkness” to “being light.”
Understanding salvation as a matter of seeing clearly also helps us to move away from the protestant preoccupation with belief in doctrine. Luther’s idea of being saved through belief, not through works, was supposed to get us away from the notion that salvation is something we earn or can purchase, but over time this emphasis on belief has become simply another form of works/righteousness. Instead of seeing faith as grace, as a free gift, as Ephesians todays says “by grace you have been saved”—we instead see people trying to manufacture faith. The result is that you get people blaming themselves, or blaming others, for their condition because if we or they just had enough faith—then everything would be okay. So, we see people coercing themselves, twisting their minds, twisting their feelings, trying to fit into some box they have identified as “believing” and the result is that on top of whatever they were suffering people get further cut off from themselves and their minds and feelings. That’s not helpful.
Sing: “Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”
The metaphor of sight as a means of salvation comes to us through the two inter-related scriptures we heard today from the Book of Numbers and the Gospel of John.
In Numbers, chapter 21, we hear the wild story of how the people of Israel become impatient and speak out against God and Moses : “There is no food and no water, and….. we detest this miserable food.” The story sounds like an action movie where the undeserving get their own as in response God sends poisonous snakes who bite people so many people die. So, the people come back to Moses and repent of speaking out against him and God and ask Moses to ask God to take the poisonous snakes away. God does not take the snakes away, but instead instructs Moses to make a bronze statue of a poisonous snake and put it on a pole and everyone who is bitten that looks on it lives.
Whoo…there are all sorts of good materials in this story. Here’s the God who says you shall bear no graven images, telling Moses to make a graven image and put it on a pole as a way to save people. That should help us not to take the idea of bearing graven images literally and instead try to focus on what idolatry is really about.
Even more interesting to me is the idea that looking on the image of what people were terrified of—becomes the means of saving them from its real poison. How does that work? It suggests to me that the fear of the snakes and of their bites is what’s making their poison so deadly. Facing that fear—the poison becomes less toxic.
Then we have this other wild passage, from the Gospel of John, where Jesus draws upon this story to talk about why and how his death will be a means of saving people from “the darkness of their deeds.” Does being saved from “the darkness of their deeds” mean we no longer do harmful things, or does it mean we become aware of our deeds, or both? We hear that the Human One must be lifted up so that whoever puts their trust in him may have eternal life. For me it’s an image of how looking at Jesus on the cross has the power to save. Again, I think it’s helpful to explore where and how this is true, because it’s certainly evident that many of us have been taught to see Jesus on the cross through a lens that is not saving and can in fact often be deadly. So how are we being encouraged to see Jesus on the cross?
John’s gospel presents a Jesus who is simultaneously the earthly Jesus, but also the Christ, the resurrected Lord who exists in and through all time. If this Jesus is making a connection between what’s going to happen to him and what Moses did with the serpent in the wilderness –how does that work? Is there some way that in seeing Jesus on the cross that we’re confronted with the fears that are killing us? If so, what are those fears and how does the image of Jesus on the cross help to save us from them?
I would suggest that perhaps on the cross we can see what it means to be human: vulnerable, in many ways weak, subject to pain and suffering. So much of the idolatry that is killing us seems rooted in our attempts to flee this humanity, to find a way to escape being human by becoming invulnerable, tremendously strong, not subject to pain and suffering. So I think John’s gospel is suggesting that, in the image of Jesus on the cross, we are given the very image of what we most fear in a way that somehow makes our fear less deadly.
If on the cross we see a God who is vulnerable, in many ways weak, subject to pain and suffering, perhaps we don’t need to be so afraid of these things, perhaps we don’t have to feel so ashamed of being human. Perhaps it’s our being ashamed of being human, and the isolation that that brings, that makes our fears of being human so deadly.
For John, the image of Jesus on the cross is also the image of a God who is not interested in judging and condemning, but rather in saving and who is willing to go to any lengths that we might know that saving love. Those who are able to see put their trust in this vision of God understand that God is not judging or condemning them. Those who can’t see this God continue to live under the reign of feeling judged and condemned. Here I would suggest John’s metaphor of being in the light is a metaphor for being able to see, being awake, being conscious, being aware.
I’ve come to feel that people are a little like dogs. (Coming from one who loves dogs you should know this is no insult.) In my understanding dog are incapable of attacking another dog if that dog lies down and bears its throat to them. Similarly, I suspect that people are incapable of hurting other people if they can see them in all their humanity. This means that when we hurt or exploit others it’s almost always because their humanity has become hidden from us, or we can’t see how our actions are affecting them.
On the macro-level, we can see how so many of the great evils done in human history—slavery, the holocaust, the killing of tens of thousands of women who were seen as witches, wars, always are partly based on the dehumanization of whoever is being attacked—to the point that they are seen as less than human, or even seen as a “thing” rather than a living creature.
We also see this on the micro-level. How often is the harm or exploitation we do to people we are close to based on our not seeing them in the fullness of their humanity, in such a way that we don’t really see how we are harming them? That can be a momentary thing or a long term thing. As the long histories of racism and sexism have taught us these macro and micro levels are inseparable. The history of how women and children have been treated, and of how people with darker different skin colors have been treated, or how people who display others kinds of difference have been treated, tell us you can do terrible things, even to people you love, because you don’t see them in the fullness of their humanity and that almost any kind of difference can be made into a way to deny the fullness of the humanity of another.
Here is where we all need to be so careful not to turn adjectives into nouns. Once an adjective becomes a noun people are being encouraged to see you as an object, not a subject. Thus we’ve seen our society turn our backs on people who are poor over the last fifty years, by viewing them as “criminals” or “cheats,” “crack babies” or “schizophrenics” or a wide variety of other phrases that encourage us to view people in terms of one aspect of who they are, rather than as full human beings.
Being able to see the image of a God who is willing to die, rather than condemn us, helps us not to hide from who we are and what we have done or are doing, because we are less afraid of being judged, condemned, and cut off. The more we are open to the light of consciousness, the light of awareness, the less likely we are to hurt or exploit others.
“Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”
“One you were in darkness, but now, in the lord, you are light.” (Ephesians 5:8) That’s an incredible image. Not only is it possible for us not to have to live hiding from seeing ourselves and our actions and our world, but we can live as light, as a means of bringing into the light, the light of consciousness, the light of awareness, the light of compassion, the light of empathy and understanding, all the realities that are keeping us and others enslaved and doing harm. And when we are able to bring any harmful reality into the light, that reality is transformed. It can’t continue to operate as it was, because harm depends on its not being seen for what it is.
Seeing the Human One lifted up, in Jesus on the cross, in Jesus in the resurrection, can be a means of delivering us from the idolatry that leaves us like idols with eyes that cannot see, with ears that connect hear, with mouths that cannot speak, with hearts that cannot feel.
Seeing the Human One lifted up, can empower us to no longer detach ourselves from the parts of our humanity we hate and fear by projecting it out onto others.
Seeing the Human One lifted up, can help us to see the reign of love and mercy-here and now—in our world,
Seeing the Human One lifted up can enable us to see God’s glory in ourselves and our fellow human beings.
Living in a universe where people don’t see you in the fullness of your humanity, which includes you in all your particularity, or worse, where people see you as some kind of object, some thing they are projecting onto you, is a really lonely place, a desolating place.
This means that the ability to simply see, to acknowledge without judgement, becomes one of the most precious gifts we can give one another. It’s a vital part of the journey towards feeling understood. It is part of the light that frees us from being a captive of the darkness of isolation and loneliness.
But for us to come to a place where we can offer others this gift requires a pretty significant transformation. It means we have to let go of the idea that judging and punishing people is helpful. It means instead trusting that all that is necessary for transformation to happen is the light of consciousness to be born, and that this light comes through those who are willing to see the reality of what is happening, or where someone is, or what someone has done or is doing, without ultimately judging them. This does not mean closing our eyes to the reality of what has happened, or is happening, as that simply helps to leave people stuck in the darkness of unconsciousness. It also doesn’t mean we can’t be angry when people harm or exploit others. That anger is natural. But it also means distinguishing between judging actions and making the kind of ultimate judgments about people that put them in the kind of box that only works to keep them from the possibility of discovering what it means to be truly human. It means realizing that almost inevitably our making such judgements about people reflects our unwillingness to deal with some aspect of ourselves.
May we learn to hold up the image of the human one, our own humanity in all its fullness, that the reign of the Human One might happen even here in the lands of the idols. For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.
“Now the ears of my ears awake Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”
“Dying and Eternal Life” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on March 18th, 2018. (Readings for the 5th of Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33)
One of my favorite prayers is the prayer of absolution that we say after our confession: “Almighty God, have mercy on us. Forgive us our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, keep us in Eternal life.”
“Keep us in eternal life.” Some of us have been taught to think of eternal life as the heavenly life you come to after you die. But that doesn’t make sense if we, the living, are praying “keep us in eternal life,” so, what are we talking about when we talk about eternal life?
My understanding of eternal life is that it’s related to the vision of salvation that we find in the psalms. In the psalms salvation is a word used to talk about being delivered from different kinds of death—here in our lives in this world. The psalms present us with a vision of how death can reign in the midst of life, how it is possible for living people to find themselves deep under the waters of Sheol—the watery underworld of the dead.
In the psalms we find there are a variety of things that can leaves us feeling like we’re living under these dark waters, that can leave you feeling like you can’t breathe and have no energy or life within you, among them are: grief, fear, shame, guilt, threats, violence, imprisonment, oppression, abandonment, neglect, hunger, loneliness, illness, and the death or loss of a loved one. Thus, when the psalms talk about salvation they are almost always talking about being delivered from one of these specific realities that has left the person, or people collectively, feeling like the living dead. Salvation is the experience of being brought back into the land of the living.
Though our psalm today, Psalm 51, doesn’t specifically refer to the waters of Sheol, we can see this at work there. The author expresses a sense of guilt so great that it has left them feeling like “a sinner from my mother’s womb.” From the Hebrew perspective, it was not possible for a baby to be a sinner, but the image certainly captures how awful that person is feeling and how much they are needing freedom from their guilt and shame in order to feel spirit and life reigning in them again. Our reading from Jeremiah today also speaks to how our sense of guilt can cut us from experiencing the love of God, such that the experience of forgiveness is vital for us to know God. This whole vision of salvation as deliverance from specific forms of the dominion of death, of coming to a place where we feel life reigning in the midst of our lives, makes so much more sense to me than the ways we so often hear salvation talked about in our culture.
But just as death can reign in life, so too, the psalms speak of how life can reign not only in life—but even in the midst of such deathly realities. As Psalm 139 says—”even if I make my bed in Sheol—you are there.” As Psalm 23 says: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me” and “you prepare a banquet before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is what I think we’re talking about when we talk about eternal life—staying connected to God, staying part of the cycle of loving and being loved, of understanding and being understood—even in the midst of such deathly realities. Though Jesus didn’t seem to focus on it much in his teachings, the story of his resurrection tells us that life can reign even after death. And so, we make our prayer—”keep us in eternal life—now and always.”
This understanding of eternal life is helpful if we are to understand Jesus words today: “Those who love their life will lose it.” Those words make no sense if we take them literally because only those who love life can love God with all their hearts, minds and souls because our love is our response to that goodness. Instead, I think what’s being referred to is what I was talking about last week about how our fear of death or dying can kill us, can leave us living in-human lives. How, by becoming shut down, cut off, living with hearts of stone—we lose our lives.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Here I hear Jesus talking about death and dying as part of the natural cycle of life that we see in the life of plants. By embracing death and dying as a part of heavenly life, the life of loving and being loved, not only will death and dying not separate us from the love of God, but they can be a means through which we express our love for God and others and a means through which we can know the love of God and the love of others.
This is a very simple message, but one that has powerful implications for how we live our lives. I see so many doing all they can to withdraw into cocoons of materialism, spiritualism, post-modernism and various other ideologies, which all seem designed to keep us from experiencing death. For myself, I take Jesus warning that while people think they are protecting themselves when they do this—it is in reality a kind of spiritual suicide, it deadens us, it cuts us off from the cycle of loving and being loved which we know of as eternal life. We can come up with all sorts of ways of doing this. Often Christianity itself is envisioned as a way of never having to experience real suffering or death, but I’ve not encountered any true love that doesn’t also lead to great suffering.
Wealth and success in our society are often presented as a life with every comfort and no real discomforts. It seems bourgeois society has decided the privileged have a right never to feel uncomfortable. It’s clear how this idea has justified every kind of segregation, gated communities, and institutional isolation because what makes us feel uncomfortable is often simply the presence of people who are different and so we set up institutions and processes so we don’t have to encounter them. But whatever version of trying to live a life in which we don’t experience death or dying or discomfort, it’s consequences are profound. You lose your life. In a real way, you live cut off from the cycle of loving and being loved.
While I don’t like being uncomfortable—I’ve accepted it as a part of daily life. However, I want to be clear, I still hate death. Some kinds of death I’ve experienced, particularly mental illness, terrify me. I love both the life of the senses and life making sense and often death involves some kind of significant loss in terms of the life of the senses and periods of time where life seems senseless. So, I don’t want to romanticize death in any way. It’s just that as I get older it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that those who give their lives to loving others are going to experience death and dying and probably a lot of it. And from where I stand, I haven’t seen anyone figure out a way not to die, except not to live fully and I’m unwilling to do that. This means that if love is what I most value, if love is what comes closest to my understanding of what is the life of God, then death and dying are part of the life I must embrace. Yuck.
At the same time, I don’t want to say that death and dying are all bad. As much as I don’t like death and dying, they have also become a precious part of life for me, or at least a way of my experiencing what is most precious in life for me.
This was perhaps first most evident to me in the death of my father. My father who seemed so powerful, even scary, as he began to die began to seem so vulnerable. In that vulnerability, I could finally see him in the midst of his simple humanity and just love him for who he was—not how I imagined him to be. That experience and many more since then have shown me that there is something about vulnerable human beings coming together in the face of death that can bring forth real tenderness. I’ve discovered that dying can be an experience of great great love and connection, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, pure love, grace. It is in the finiteness of the lives of people I love that I have found something infinitely precious.
I’m not saying this happens all the time, but at least through this community I’ve found it often happens and all this is such a contrast to how I used to experience death, which was as something simultaneously meaningless and yet also somehow all about shame and judgment: what I had done or failed to do for someone, or they for me. But when death becomes simply about loving, in the midst of that darkness I experience something very different, something that feels very close to the mystery that I experienced in the birth of my children.
Christianity professes a God so much greater than death that death is absorbed within her or him. St. Francis even refers to death as his beloved sister. That vision of God can help us hold death and dying. It can transform our experience of death and dying from being an experience of judgment, condemnation, shame, isolation, or meaninglessness, into being a means of acceptance, of loving and being loved, and of seeing what is most meaningful and precious. In the process, we begin to see how not only our lives, but even our death and dying, can become precious gifts, not only the death and dying which we will each face one day, but the many kinds of death and dying we experience everyday, if we are awake, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to love. 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
P.S.: A brief postscript on practicing what you preach, or the cost of not practicing it. After writing this sermon last night I watched the NCAA playoff game between the University of Michigan and Houston. Michigan did not play really well all night. None of its best players had great games and I thought the coaching was off. I turned off the game with 3.9 seconds to go because Michigan was two points down and had done nothing with the ball the last two times they had it except to manage to foul the guy who had made Houston’s previous six points – a man who seemed to have a perfect foul shot. I couldn’t see anyway that they could win and I just didn’t want to watch their incredible disappointment as a team that many thought could go all the way saw their hopes dashed.
I woke up this morning listening to the radio and learned Michigan had won the game. I could barely believe it. Fortunately, I had recorded the game so I got up and watched those last 3.9 seconds. I watched as Houston’s incredible player missed both his foul shots. Then Houston mistakenly didn’t guard Isaiah Livers throwing the ball in so he was able to make a perfect half court throw to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who passed the ball perfectly to Jordan Poole (who hadn’t made a basket in the whole second half of the game) who then—with a big guy coming right up at him sank a long 3 point shot to win the game. I don’t know what the odds were on all that happening, but I think they were incredibly low. All a further lesson in how avoiding death can keep us from knowing victory and how foolish we can be in being so certain we know how things are going to turn out. I’m grateful for the reminder.
“Jesus and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on March 4th, 2018 (Readings for the 3rd of Lent(B): Exodus 20:1-7, Psalm 19, I Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22)
I know some of you may be here today, just yearning to find a little comfort, or some healing, or some kindness or encouragement. I hope you find that here today. But though we are often hurting we also need to figure out how we can shake the world, because so often why we are needing comfort, healing, and encouragement is related to what’s going on in our world. So today, partly because it’s the focus of our gospel, I’m going to be talking about the shaking of our world. I hope you will take from it whatever is useful for you, and let the rest be.
One of the complicated things about trying to follow in the way of Jesus, is that Jesus lived in a world in which the political, the economic, the social, and the religious—were inseparable. Thus, most of the time, Jesus’ words and actions were addressed to all the different aspects of this reality at the same time. In contrast, we live in a world where we are constantly trying to distinguish these realities from each other. Thus, Jesus the non-violent revolutionary, who was an amazing political strategist, is made simply into a religious teacher, or Jesus, the amazing religious reformer and spiritual teacher, is made simply into a political activist. But perhaps in our world the political and the economic, the social and the religious are much more inter-related than our intellectual categories would have us believe. If that’s true, perhaps we need to let the gospels speak to us on every level at the same time—as they would have to those who first heard them.
Part of Jesus’ moral genius is the way he understood how to challenge the immoral and symbolic narratives that were being used to justify domination and oppression. Today I’m going to be trying to talk about Jesus’ two campaigns as a way to illuminate and illustrate this and then see what that might tell us about the challenges we are facing today.
In Mark’s gospel we see Jesus’ first campaign was focused on the region of Galilee.
Now the immoral symbolic narrative that was used to justify domination and exploitation in this region at the time had two main focuses—both related to a narrative around debt.
The first focus is pretty simple for us to understand. It focused on financial debt. Most of the people who worked the land were indebted. They owed money to those they had been forced to borrow money from as a way to survive. This indebtedness left them subject to the demands of their lenders so that they would often get less and less good terms in any kind of negotiations around the repayment of their debts. At the time of Jesus, this debt system was destroying the village-based agriculture system that had existed for thousands of years as people were increasingly losing their lands which went into the hands of large landowners. The consequences for those who lost their lands was dramatic. I believe some historians estimate those who were turned off their lands lived an average of something like five years before they died from the hardships of the lives of the uprooted.
The second type of indebtedness people suffered from was cultic debt. This is maybe a little harder, but equally important, for us to understand. This is your indebtedness to the broader society you owed for being an unclean person and the burden that put on the broader community. This cultic debt came out of the imperial temple religion that said that all kinds of people were unclean and all kinds of things could make you unclean. If you were handicapped or disabled you were considered permanently unclean. If you had been rendered unclean for some temporary reason, like coming into contact with seamen or blood or some other source of contamination, then you could pay to have sacrifices offered in the temple that would render you clean again. But the poor often could not afford these sacrifices so they were usually viewed, in the eyes of others, to be unclean.
This whole debt system, in which the majority of people were blamed, considered unworthy, because of having gotten into debt, or were viewed as unclean and impure, was the immoral narrative that was used, in Biblical terms to justify “hiding your face from your own kin,” to disown people, to turn them from subjects into objects by not recognizing their humanity.
In response to this Jesus created a movement and a campaign that:
*called for the forgiveness of financial debts. Though I suspect most of those in the movement were not those holding the debts of others, just to hold up the forgiveness of debts as a Godly virtue challenged the moral equation as suddenly it is not the debtor who is viewed negatively, but rather those who are holding and not forgiving the debts.
*called for the forgiveness of cultic debts. “Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” A static reality where some are viewed as the pure and others as the impure suddenly changes as there is no longer justification for viewing the impure with hard hearts as you are reminded of your own indebtedness to God. It seems one key way to practice the forgiveness of cultic debts is related to touching and social acceptance. The powers that be said that if you touched an unclean person you became unclean. So how does Jesus heal people and free them from the spirits that are possessing them? He touches them and then he welcomes them back into the community.
*called for the breaking of bread together and the sharing of food. These public feasts become one of the primary means through which to affirm a Godly reality that delegitimized the social/political/religious order. According to the Pharisees and others you were not to break bread with the impure which, not by coincidence, included most poor people. The breaking of bread together across the boundaries of the pure and the impure became first and foremost a way of affirming the new family of God and rejecting a social hierarchy that left some viewed as superior and others inferior, some worthy and others unworthy, some human and others less than human. It became not only a concrete symbolic way of sustaining people, but even more importantly a counter-witness to those who justified their murderous policies by blaming those they declared impure.
Thus, we can see how the campaign in Galilee was simultaneously a matter of political change, religious reform, psychological transformation, and spiritual renewal—aimed at undermining the symbol systems and narratives that justified oppression and pointing toward the creation of a new society, a new kind of political/economic relationships, a new kind of religion, a new kind of spirituality, a new kind of psychology.
Jesus second campaign is the focus of the second half of Mark’s gospel. In this campaign, Jesus takes on the immoral national narratives and symbol systems that justify the same kind of hard hearted, oppressive systems of domination that he was dealing with on the local level in Galilee.
This campaign is short lived, it takes place in less than a week, but its consequence are dramatic. The heart of this campaign is the actions we hear about in John’s gospel today where Jesus goes into the Temple in Jerusalem, the epicenter of political, religious, social and economic power in Israel.
The Temple was the place where taxes were collected both to support the Jewish Temple -State and its sponsors –the Roman Empire. It is where all the animals are taken to be sacrificed, made kosher, according to the law. It was like a huge meat market in which thousands of animals were sacrificed every day. It had deep wide channels to carry thousands of gallons of blood out of the Temple. It’s also where people would come to offer up sacrifices to achieve atonement with God, be made one again with God and the community.
When Jesus comes into the Temple, quoting the prophets, and with a whip in his hand drives out the sheep and the cattle and overturns the tables of the money changers (which were necessary because Roman coins bore the image of Cesar) he was not simply protesting the commercialization of religion, as John’s text might seem to suggest, but according to Mark says “You have made my father’s house into a den of thieves.” That is, the Temple of God, which is supposed to be a place of restoration and wholeness, has become the hideout for those who are robbing the people. What is being stolen, is not only the wages of the poor, but also their inherent dignity, as this system first convinces people they are impure and then sells them purity and reconciliation with God and others.
By critiquing this system and suggesting there is no need for these sacrifices Jesus attacks the foundation on which this domination system is built. The authorities understand this and according to Mark’s gospel immediately move to arrest Jesus. Jesus is then tried and executed as a blasphemer and as one who deserves the death of a revolutionary. Though Jesus is killed, his followers reject the Temple system’s vision of reconciliation with God through offering animal sacrifices. Less than 40 years later, after the temple is destroyed, non-Christian Jews will also move away from this vision of religion.
Now, why are these campaigns so important for us to understand? What is the Spirit saying to us today, here and now, in and through them?
Here, I would like to turn to the words of Martin Luther King, who like Gandhi, helped to shed such light on Jesus’ vision of social and spiritual change.
“There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for (its) situation.
In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to wall rats and roaches. Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions. In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education.”* (*From transcription of “The Other America” Speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. at Grosse Pointe High School on March 14th, 1968)
“This America is the home of the dispossessed, the disinherited, and the disenchanted….. So long as these two Americas exists, there must be a continuing struggle for human rights.”** (**From manuscript of “The Other America” found in the Martin Luther King Archives.)
Like Jesus, King was an amazing political, religious, and moral strategist who understood how to not simply challenge oppressive and neglectful policies, but also how to attack the immoral narrative and symbolic systems that justified them.
The Civil Rights movement, which might be viewed as King’ first campaign, was significantly focused on the system of segregation as it was found in the South. It was a system maintained in and through the rule of terror. King and the Civil Rights movement overthrew that rule of terror by taking up Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow me” through doing the very things that had led people to be lynched for over a hundred years throughout the South: speaking up, affirming your dignity, protesting, trying to vote. Doing these actions and facing the violent backlash made people realize they could survive the threats and the violence such they the threat of terror and shame could no longer control them –and when that happened—all sorts of things began to change.***
(*** See essay “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did,” by Hamden Rice, published in Daily Kos on August 29th, 2011)
Where Jesus focused on the public sharing of food, the Civil Rights movement chose the simple symbolic action of integrating those spaces that were to be for whites only. It was a direct assault on the purity code that was used to justify segregation—the idea that whites were morally superior, more pure.
The segregationists justified segregation by claiming that they were equally concerned about the well-being of people of color as they were for white people. But the non-violent tactics of the Civil Rights movement exposed the reality so the whole country could see the murderous, hard hearted, uncompassionate, immoral reality for what it was. With no moral foundation to rest on—legal segregation crumbled.
Towards the end of that campaign King began to plan a second, even bigger campaign, to take on the domination system in our nation as a whole, to take on the system that justified racism, systemic poverty, and militarization. This campaign was to be called “The Poor Peoples’ Campaign.” The campaign intended to use the tactics the civil rights movement had developed to bring the plight of the poor, their needs and their humanity, before the national conscience through bringing them into the centers of power. King was killed on April 4th 1968, exactly one year after he had begun talking about this new kind of campaign in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, and exactly one week before Maundy Thursday. He never lived to see the campaign he hoped would challenge the way the stigmatizing of poor people was used to justify their exploitation and mistreatment in this country.
Today, we are still living in two Americas, still living in a nation tragically divided between its democratic and human rights ideals and an economic and moral system that justifies the mistreatment of almost half of our population, the 140 million people who live in or near poverty, the vast majority of whom are women and children, and who are trapped in a caste system. If you are poor, this caste system, for most people defines where you can and cannot live. Generally, where you live in turn defines what kinds of schools you can and cannot go to. Generally, what kind of high school you go to defines what kind of higher education you can and cannot get. Generally, what kind of higher education you get, or don’t get, dictates what kind of jobs and salary you can and cannot make. Generally, what kind of salary you make generally defines where you can and cannot live. So, we see people trapped in this vicious cycle of despair and neglect. Thus, as Martin Luther King pointed out, the children of God in this country are divided into two systems—one that promises freedom, economic well-being, and spiritual and physical health and another that promises frustration and works to perpetuate poverty, illness and early death. And Jesus comes to us saying—”Well—what are we going to do about it?”
I don’t believe there is any one correct answer to that question. I think it’s going to take the kind of myriad of approaches that we saw in the Civil Rights’ movement, but it’s also clear that it’s going to require that same kind of sacrifice. But we must be willing to make these sacrifices for continuing as we have been is untenable.
We will never have racial justice in this country unless we confront our economic injustice, but simultaneously we will never have economic justice, a decent life for all, unless we have racial justice, because it has been the creation of systems of privilege based on skin color that have been the major means of dividing poor and working people throughout our history. And we can see how these systems of racial and economic injustice have been so tied into sexism and discrimination against women and vice versa.
We will never have racial justice, economic justice, or gender justice, as long as our society spends so much of our country’s wealth on our military, and we will never be able to challenge the justification for our massive military system until we address the economic and racial injustices that give rise to the conflicts which are used to justify our use of the military.
We may not have much time to address these evils, unless we wake up to the destructin of our environment, but we will also not be able to address what is being done to our environment unless we recognize how the degradation of our environment is connected to systemic economic, racial, and gender inequality and militarism.
Lastly, or perhaps firstly, there is the question of faith. The faith of Jesus was inseparable from the struggle for social and political and religious change. I would suggest that perhaps we are never really going to know the transforming power of the faith of Jesus until we too are willing to wade into these waters, until we too come to the place where we are willing to give our lives in love to see to the reign of love happen here on earth and in our society. But I believe that if we are willing God is able and that if we are a ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
“Beloved” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on February 24th, 2018 at the Celebration of the Life of Letitia Byrd. (Readings: Isaiah 58:6-12, Psalm 23, II Corinthians 5:20-6:10, Luke 4:1-21)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”…(the time of the Jubilee)
In Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus choose this text from Isaiah to proclaim what his work was to be all about, which includes the complete overturning of the status quo that is so harmful to the poor. Luke tells us this happened shortly after Jesus’ baptism during which the heavens were torn open and Jesus heard a voice from heaven saying, “you are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
I want to talk today about how the experience of truly knowing ourselves as Beloved, impels us to want to work so that others might also know their belovedness, for that’s what I see in the life of our beloved sister Letitia Byrd. Because we live in a country that seems to suffer from a terrible case of historical amnesia and because, as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” I would also like to talk about Letitia’s life in relationship to some of the most significant events in our nation’s history.
As Letitia would say, she was raised in Bluefield “By God” West Virginia. She was named for her grandmother Letitia, who was born twenty years after the end of the Civil war, eight years after the end of reconstruction gave way to the new night of oppression and domination that we would come to know as Jim Crow.
Letitia was raised in the days of Jim Crow, a system of legal discrimination based on the idea that white people were superior to people of color. But Letitia grew up in a family and a community and a Methodist Church that left her with the mark of the Beloved. This meant that no matter what others said, Letitia grew up knowing her divine worth. Though this system of racial domination tried to demean her, knowing her belovedness gave Letitia a kind of inner protection and fortitude, the creative imagination and the will to overcome and a faith that the truth would ultimately prevail. You could see it in her beauty and the way she dressed and carried herself throughout her life.
So much of the positive movement we’ve seen in this country around racial justice has been built on the spiritual and cultural power of those raised to know themselves as Beloved and who are therefore determined to claim their worth and dignity, even if it appears to be against all odds. Letitia bore that mark and helped put it on many many others.
Letitia hated segregation. She hated having to go through the side entrance and sit in the upstairs balcony where people of color were to sit in the local movie theaters. When she was a young adult, she and others organized a campaign to integrate the movie theaters in Bluefield. Two of them were successfully integrated while the third chose to shut down instead. (Much much later, Letitia’s son Kip would often want to sit in the balcony to watch movies, but Letitia never wanted them to.)
Part of bearing the mark of being Beloved is you believe that rather than having to conform to the world of things, like the roles and expectations of different societal structures and institutions, you believe it is they that should be transformed to honor people, you and everyone else they are meant to serve. That’s the philosophy of Personalism that had such a profound impact on the Civil Rights Movement through the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. When you look at Letitia’s life you can see how she was constantly challenging structures and institutions and seeking to transform them both for herself and others.
After graduating from Bluefield State College, with degrees both in music education and business administration, Letitia went to work as the first paid staff person for her sorority Delta Sigma Theta and set up their national office in Washington DC. Through the leadership of women like Letitia, the Deltas have become a powerhouse of support for the leadership of many many many African American women.
After getting married and having her son Kip, Letitia came back to West Virginia to care for her father who was needing to have heart surgery. Letitia was utterly heart broken when he died on the operating table. Several months later she moved to Ann Arbor to join her brother Claude and his wife Elginne who were living here. Later Letitia’s brother Pete and his wife and then Letitia’s mother and grandmother all moved to Ann Arbor. Letitia’s family, including all her nieces and nephews and great and great great nieces and nephews and all the friends that were graced through becoming part of their extended family—meant the world to her. I also know how grateful she was to Kip and all of them for how they sustained her after her beloved David’s death and then how they cared for her as her health began to worsen.
When Letitia first came to Ann Arbor she worked for the University of Michigan hospital in accounting and then became the executive secretary of the dean of the School of Medicine. During this time, she also went back to school. After getting her teaching certificate Letitia first taught in the Ann Arbor schools, later went into counseling and became head of counseling at Huron High School, before she finally ended up high up in the administration of the whole school system.
The fact that Ann Arbor had a black community meant that it was considered a more liberal city than the many cities and towns in Michigan, like Dearborn and East Lansing, that didn’t allow people of color to live within them and had laws that prohibited them from being within their borders after sundown.
None the less, Ann Arbor was still a segregated city through the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Though at the time Letitia moved here, Ann Arbor didn’t have legal segregation we had de-facto segregation. Red lining meant people of color were only allowed to live in a very restricted part of the city. Our school system stayed overwhelmingly segregated until this red lining ended, but even after that there were those who didn’t think there were any African American teachers qualified to teach upper level courses or to be principals of schools. Letitia was part of a generation that kept chipping away at these barriers. Told she should go teach in Inkster she refused and ended up becoming the first African American Junior High teacher in Ann Arbor.
Letitia fought these battles against racism and discrimination but stayed grounded in a place of love. One of my favorite stories was the day in the late 1960’s, or early 1970s, when Letitia came out of her office at lunch hour and found that a large group of white students and a large group of black students had gathered on either side of the drive at Huron High to fight each other. Just at the point where it seemed they were ready to attack each other Letitia waded into their midst telling them they needed to leave and go to class. To her surprise—they did. As she said “I don’t know how I did it, but I wasn’t going to let my students hurt each other.”
In addition to all her work with the schools, Letitia ended up working with so many different community groups and organizations. Some like the SOS Crises Center, Peace Neighborhood Center, Dawn Farms, and the University Musical society, are well known, but there were many many others that were far less well known. Always these involvements became opportunities to shine light on others and share in their lives and learn from them.
As a result of all her work, if you were with Letitia you found that wherever she went people were always stopping her and were invariably so happy to see her. On the day of my last visit with her at the University hospital the woman at the front desk who gave me Letitia’s room number told me she was a former student and how much Letitia had meant to her. Then when Joetta and I were upstairs visiting with Letitia a med tech came in to do something. He too had been a former student and was clearly delighted to see both of them. Those kinds of connections meant so much to Letitia.
Most of the time, Letitia seemed to be a perpetual flow of positive energy. Everywhere she went she was always looking for how she could make connections between people to help facilitate getting things done. She made you feel appreciated and her positive energy was infectious. If you were going to see her, you knew the odds were good that she might ask you to do something. You might even have told yourself you were to busy to do anything more, but in the light of her enthusiasm you found yourself walking away feeling happy about whatever you agreed to do.
But if Letitia ran into roadblocks, she was also willing to be a little less gracious. I remember being in meetings with Pittsfield township officials. The meetings would begin with some official explaining why what Letitia was requesting couldn’t happen for this or that reason. Letitia would say “I don’t understand.” They would explain again. She’d say “I still don’t understand.” At first, I couldn’t understand how Letitia couldn’t understand. Then I learned to watch as these exasperated officials would eventually figure out some way to do what Letitia wanted them to do. Like the widow knocking on the unjust judge’s door in the middle of the night—it was an amazingly effective strategy.
When you look at the scope of all the things she did, all the places she traveled, all the people she knew and all the different ways she engaged them, Letitia’s life looks like some kind of shooting star. I don’t think any of us will ever know the scope of all the things she was involved in. That determination to be out there in world was partly about Letitia’s awareness of herself as Beloved, but it also seems to have been connected to her having been so ill as a child. As a child, Letitia had terrible ear infections. Because these were the days before anti-biotics, she had to have two dangerous ear operations. Letitia never forgot how she had to lie in bed for months. Particularly vivid was her memory of being in bed looking out at her bedroom window at her brothers Pete and Claude in the backyard playing in the playhouse her father had built for her and which she hadn’t yet ever had a chance to play in. That experience may also help to explain why Letitia was so unwilling ever to be confined either physically or by other peoples’ expectations.
As Ella Fitzgerald sang, Letitia liked to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative.” She didn’t like conflicts. This means that if you weren’t paying attention you might have missed some of the ways Letitia managed to avoid going along with the expectations of others when they didn’t suit her.
Letitia lived in a time when wives were expected to care for their husbands by cooking for them, but Letitia almost never cooked. Thankfully her mother was a great cook so Letitia would often simply go down to her mother’s to get a plate of food for David so he would have something to eat. Thankfully, David was just as independent minded as Letitia and really valued all the things Letitia was doing in the broader community.
I also think it’s important to note both the joy Letitia found in this church, but also the sacrifices she made to be part of a predominantly white church. In a place like Ann Arbor, Sunday morning can feel like one of the few times during the week when people of color can connect with each other, but Letitia made that sacrifice because she believed “We need to be everywhere.”
While clearly embracing and being rooted in her African American identity, Letitia was committed to drawing on the best of all world cultures, music, literary, philosophy, art. You can see this in her relationship to music. Music was at the heart of Letitia’s spirituality and one of the key ways she continued to experience herself as Beloved. She was one of the founding members of the “Our Own Thing Chorale” and loved how their music and message helped people hear the way of the Beloved. She loved being part of the choir here at First Methodist. She also loved all kinds of other music—particularly classical music and opera. She saw how it deepened, strengthened, and fed people in ways that is only now becoming more evident as, for example, we come to understand more about the ways music seems to help young people to be more successful in school.
In 2nd Corinthians today, we hear Paul describe the life of those carrying on the ministry of justice, love and reconciliation. For Paul, this work is not about waiting for Jesus to return, it is about now. “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”
Paul describes the hardships of this life including beatings, jailing’s, hunger, and sleepless nights, but we also hear that in the midst of all these difficulties there is the sweetness of kindness, genuine love, patience, and truthful speech. It was for him and the people working with him an experience of simultaneously “having nothing yet possessing everything.”
That’s the spirit of resurrection, that’s the spirit of the Beloved, the spirit of those who know they are of infinite worth and are determined that others come to know their infinite worth. That is the Spirit I encountered in Letitia and her work. Her life and work sing of what we can each be doing, here and now.
For almost fifty years, we have been living in another post-reconstruction era. Much of the progress of the Civil Rights era has been slowly eroded as the caste system has re-asserted itself. We are living in a time when we are needing, once again, for a generation to rise up to, in Isaiah words, “rebuild the ancient ruins” that we see in so many urban and rural places in our county and around the world. Once again, we need people willing to dedicate their lives to raising up “the foundations of many generations,” which forty years of growing economic inequality have helped to undermine. Once again, we need people willing to be known as “repairers of the breach” and “the restorers of streets to live in.”
May we leave here today not only giving thanks to God for the light and love we have known through Letitia Byrd, but also asking for a double dose of her spirit, that we might join in her work of helping to tear down the caste system in our county and of working for the day when all know their belovedness. For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepared a way for us.
Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on February 18, 2018.
(Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, I Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15)
I want to talk about three things today: baptism as opening ourselves to the Divine revelation that we are Beloved, how accepting our Belovedness gives birth to the vision of what we are called to be about and what we want to do with our lives, and then what it means to be tempted way from that call.
In Jesus’ Baptism the heavens are torn apart and Jesus hears the proclamation “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That tearing open of the heavens and Jesus ability to hear and accept his divine Belovedness—sets the rest of the gospel story in motion.
It means Jesus lives in a different universe then the one we live in so much of the time. Knowing he is Beloved, means Jesus is not subject to all the coercive pressures so many of us feel, including the shaming that make us try to be this, or do that, in order to fit in, in order to be acceptable in the eyes of others. Knowing the voice of the Spirit of God and knowing he is well pleasing to God gives Jesus the authority, the grounds on which to judge what is of God and what is not where ever he encounters it, in day to day life, in church, or even in the Bible. It means that though he is a poor man, probably not even literate, Jesus can stand toe to toe with the leading religious, political, and economic authorities of his time. Finally, I would suggest it is his experience of God’s love which empowers Jesus to love others in such a way that they too will know this divine love. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is a veritable whirlwind of engagement and action, like some kind of Samurai warrior, taking on one battle after another, working to free people from that which would keep them from knowing themselves as beloved.
Knowing his Belovedness is what enables Jesus to become God’s covenant to the world. We heard in our reading from Genesis today about the first covenant, the covenant between God and every living creature—God’s promise never to destroy the world. The rainbow is the sign of this covenant. But Jesus comes proclaiming and living out a new covenant. This new covenant is the covenant the prophets kept saying was coming—the day when God would come to liberate and heal the world, free the captives, bring the lost home, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, bring about the day of love and justice on earth, in part through taking people’s hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh. You can see how Jesus’s experience of himself as Beloved is directly related to his mission to see that all people see the salvation of God, know themselves as Beloved of God.
Jesus will do this through living out what it means to be Beloved and speaking and acting so that others know their Belovedness. The control of the powers who rule our world rests upon their ability to exploit others based on their ability to keep people from knowing the glory that is within them. Jesus knows they will not be able to tolerate his message and will likely kill him. But Jesus also seems to have had this amazing spiritual insight that he could use that very process as a way of exposing the true nature of their brutal heartless power and as a way of being able to help people see the true nature of the loving and liberating God.
Our story also tells us that as soon as Jesus was baptized, authorized and empowered, the Spirit led him alone into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. The Bible sometimes uses the number 40 to mean a long time. Mark doesn’t tell us the nature of the temptations, but in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we learn they were not your everyday kind of temptations—they were all voices of the devil trying to talk Jesus out of doing what he felt called to do. In Jesus’ teachings, the means and the ends are always directly connected. If you are seeking to bring about a new humanity, a humanity no longer enslaved or manipulated by others, you cannot do it by coercing people, forcing or tempting or punishing them to be how you want them to be. It has to be on the basis of helping them to recognize and claim the gift of their humanity. There are no shortcuts.
The devil comes along trying to tempt Jesus to buy into all the standard ways people try to bring about change—through exercising power over other as opposed to at a personal cost.
The Devil tempts Jesus to use economic power over others—”turn these stones into bread.” Lenin said if you give the poor bread you can lead them into the new society of communism. FDR said if we send everyone a Sears and Roebucks’ catalogue we can seduce them into capitalism. Jesus says—those who are human can’t live by bread alone.
The Devil tries to tempt Jesus to follow the way of political power over others—”worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” This is the way of Caesar, the way of military and political power over others that is ultimately rooted in the power to threaten people with death to get them to do what you want.
The Devil tries to tempt Jesu to follow in the way of psychological power over others—”throw yourself off the temple”—preform magic, promise magic. But Jesus holds firm to his understanding of what he can’t do, and what he must do, if people are to learn to discover their Belovedness and learn to live out of that place. Whether Jesus’ time alone in the wilderness was 40 days or many years—Jesus emerged out of the wilderness ready to resist the kinds of temptations that were going to come to him, even from the mouths of his closest friends, so that he could do what he felt he must do to help bring about the day of the Lord, the day of justice and love here on earth.
Now I’ve tried to point out about how Jesus being able to open himself and be transformed by the revelation of his Belovedness was directly connected to his understanding of what he felt called to do, to his being empowered to do it, and finally to his understanding of what he needed to struggle against if he was going to be successful in being God’s covenant to the world. But this story is not just about Jesus, it’s about us.
In our baptismal liturgy we hear proclaimed that we are marked as God’s Beloved forever. In our baptismal liturgy we agree to walk in the way of Jesus and be God’s covenant to the world by “proclaiming the goodness of God in Christ,” by “seeking and serving Christ in all people,” by “loving our neighbor as ourselves,” by “striving for justice and peace among all people,” by “respecting the dignity of every human being.” Baptism is, in part, a symbolic re-enactment of our death to the ways the world of domination as it has named some of us superior and other of us inferior, so that we can be reborn into our common humanity as children of God. Baptism is, in part, a symbolic proclamation that the threat of death will not keep us from the living the life of God’s Beloved; loving and being loved, knowing ourselves as beloved, committed to working for the day when all know their Belovedness.
Now our story today connects call and temptation. Our tradition says that, almost always, when we are inspired to do something, shortly thereafter a voice is going to come along and say—it can wait, it will be better if you start doing it after you take a nap, or tomorrow, or next week, or next year. In other words, there seems to voice within us that absolutely resists change. Our tradition says that if we don’t learn how to resist that voice we end up enslaved by it. Soon it’s not a matter of delaying change it’s a matter of not even believing change is even possible. This means temptation is something we really want to take seriously, if we want to live as free people, if we want to give our lives to love.
So today I’d like to pose the question, what is it that keeps us as individuals and collectively from living the life of the Beloved, the life of knowing ourselves as loved, the life of giving ourselves in love for others, the life of seeing that the reign of love happens on earth?
For Jesus it was about temptations to take the short cut of power over others—what is it for you? How are you tempted to go off the path you want your life to be about? Have you learned to resist temptation if so –how? What works to keep you responding to the voice of the Spirit as it keeps speaking to you? If you’ve not learned to resist temptation– why? What seems to get in the way? Finally, what have you learned about the price of going along with the voice of temptation—where has it led you—left you?
Here I guess I would like to end with a pretty sobering word. As I get older and get more opportunity to follow peoples’ journeys across time, it’s becoming more and more evident to me how much character, which seems to be a matter of the habits of the heart we develop over time, has to do with the nature of our lives and how they turn out. Sorrow and loss are part of all our lives simply by virtue of being human beings, but it’s also so evident that there is so much unnecessary suffering that is rooted in our unwillingness to resist temptation and to let ourselves be transformed. There are so many ways for us to destroy our relationships, friendships, partnerships, families, communities, nations, world. Things that might not have seems like a big issue at one point in our lives (pride, arrogance, stubbornness, unwillingness to listen, cowardice and conflict avoidance, lying or being unwilling to speak up, laziness, various ways we numb ourselves to our feelings) have ways of growing and hardening over time such that soon we find ourselves completely in bondage to them. When we just think something and don’t act on it, James said it’s like we’re like someone who looks in the mirror and then walks away and immediately forgets what they look like. When we don’t act, we end up forgetting who we are and who it is we want to be and what kind of lives we hope to live. The consequences are that we lose the lives we want to live.
The Good News of the Jesus story is not just about a new world and a new creation, it is also about grace as the possibility of change, the possibility of our living lives no longer in bondage to ourselves, or the parts of ourselves that seek to control us, or in bondage to the expectations of others.
Even if we have broken our vows a thousand times, this Lent may we recommit ourselves to the way of the Beloved, the way of letting ourselves be fully loved for who we are in all our complex totality. This includes not only letting others love us, but also our willingness to show loving kindness to ourselves including those parts of ourselves we don’t like or fear. May we recommit ourselves to the way of the Beloved in terms of our loving this earth and all her children with all our heart, minds and soul, that in us and through us God’s new creation might blossom. 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
Reflections on Ash Wednesday given by the Rev. Joe Summers on February 14th, 2018 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (AshWednesday Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12,
2nd Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
I was struck by Isaiah’s vision today of being renewed in hope, and strength and light. I don’t know about you, but I’m at that point in the winter where it feels like all I can do is just put one foot in front of the other as what I really want to do is crawl up in bed and sleep, or read, or watch TV, until spring comes. It’s at that point of the year where spring begins to seem more like a concept, a theory, maybe even a fantasy—even though my rational self says spring is a reality and that it will come again.
The word Lent is an early English word for spring. Lent is the season of preparation for the spring of resurrection, so—
*other than the snow and freezing weather,
*other than the plagues of flus and colds people have been suffering from,
*other than having a former ardent defender of segregation as our national attorney general,
*other than having a president who says he never repents, is anti-the stranger, anti-the poor, rarely misses an opportunity to perpetuate racists attitudes and who seems to sow division and conflict in whatever area he turns his attention to,
*other than living in a county that elected this president and this administration,
*other than living in a time where in Yeats words it seems :
…anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.* (From the poem The Second Coming”
*other than the apparent lack of strong moral leadership, individuals and movements committed to doing the right thing and also to doing the hard interior work and hard interpersonal work you need to do for real change to happen.
*other than living in a society that seems to have developed denial, disassociation, and disconnection into a high art form through all kinds of media, all kinds of substances, and an endless assault of materialist propaganda that encourages us to retreat into our separate cocoons,
*aside from these and some other realities I could easily name—what stands between us and resurrection, what stands between us and the spring time of our world?
Jesus said, nothing that we can’t help to change, if we are willing to do our homework, if we are willing to do our heart work, because the same inter-connected nature of our social reality that is currently so weighing on us—is the same inter-connected reality through which we can help to change things—if we are willing to change.
So, the question is, what are we needing to do in order to change? What can help us become resurrected?
Some hear the call to Lent as a call to feel bad about ourselves. I don’t think that sounds like much of a change. It seems like most of us have been pretty well programmed to feel bad about ourselves to the degree that it is a vital part of what is maintaining this ugly status quo. Now it may be that attempting to deny, or disassociate, from feeling bad about ourselves is not working. If that’s the case it’s probably time to confess such feelings, get them out in the open and in the light of day, so that we can ask God’s help in transforming them. But that’s not the same thing as feeling we ought to feel bad about ourselves.
No, the seeds of the spring of resurrection are nurtured by kindness: kindness we need to learn to show ourselves, kindness we need to learn to learn to show towards those parts of ourselves that we’re angry or frustrated with or are frightened by. Punishing ourselves into being good doesn’t work. Letting the light of God’s kindness shine through us towards ourselves does. So, this Lent, what about considering taking time to show loving kindness to the ways you feel trapped into living in ways you don’t want to live, or in bondage to parts of yourself that you don’t like. If you do it, take notes and see if it doesn’t make a difference.
Some people think Lent is about public displays of piety and being religious. We hear in both Isaiah and Matthew today the opposite. Isaiah says it’s not about being or looking religious. It’s about “breaking every yoke” and letting the oppressed go free. Matthew says it’s about letting go of that part of ourselves that wants to look good in the eyes of others and instead truly loving God and truly loving others. The Jesus story tells us, over and over again, that loving truly is going to be in conflict with our attachment to looking good in the eyes of others. Trying to please others, trying to be pleasing to others, turns out to be one of the biggest obstacles to leading a soulful life, to living a life that has real soul. Consider how trying to be pleasing to others has you trapped in the pit of desolation. What would you do differently if you could let go of your desire to look good in the eyes of others?
Some people think Lent is all about being alone and introspective. We hear Paul say the opposite today. It is also about action. It’s about letting the seeds of the kingdom of God take root in us and grow and blossom and bear the fruit of doing anything and everything we can to truly love other and bring about the reign of love.
Some people think Lent is all about action. No says Matthew. It is also about going into empty room so that we meet God in that place where there are no distractions, so that we can open up a conversation between our hearts and the divine for it is that conversation that is transformative. It is that encounter that is resurrecting.
Some Christians don’t practice Lent because they think Christians are supposed to be happy all the time and Lent sounds like a downer. But Jesus says, for the conditioned self, ourselves as life has left us, ourselves as we have attempted to create ourselves, to become our beloved selves, ourselves in all the fullness and glory that can come through the transformation of the Spirit, there is a dying process, the seed of grain must fall into the dark earth and lose its life as a seed before the plant can begin to grow. In my experience, anybody who tells you can give birth, or you can die, without any pain is lying to you. And yet pain is a whole different experience when we know it has a purpose, when we now it is leading to something better. Lent is about a dying to our selves as we’ve been forged in the flames of fear, so that we can help to birth new selves forged in the fires of true love.
May this Lent be a time for holy living, holy dying, and holy birth, so that we can awake from the nightmare of just trying to get through life and awake to the incredible gift of what life can be when we give ourselves fully and wholly to loving. 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
Rev. Joe Summer’s Statement given at the Washtenaw County Sanctuary Press Conference on February 14, 2018 at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
The public face of love is justice so I want to talk today about the New Sanctuary Movement and the call to Justice.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all (people) are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. That among these Rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
What we hear in our nation’s Declaration of Independence is the government of the United States is to be based on the principle of recognizing and honoring certain human rights that are not based on citizenship, race, class, country of origin, but simply based on being human. In my view, this makes our government’s denial of the fundamental human rights of the eleven million undocumented people in this country unconstitutional.
We have laws in this country that say that everyone, regardless of citizenship, are to be accorded due legal process. This makes the sham immigrant courts that have been set-up to expedite deporting people, that give people no real opportunity to defend themselves or present a legal defense, and the actions of ICE agents who terrorize people by breaking into their houses and seizing or threatening them—illegal.
We are also a country meant to be founded on certain moral principles, including caring for the vulnerable, particularly children and families and those fleeing terror. This makes the current actions of the Trump administration, these kangaroo courts, and these ICE Agents—immoral.
Now, when in the history of this country citizens have seen their government act in unconstitutional, illegal and immoral ways they have recognized their need to witness against these actions, to act to protect the vulnerable, and to demand our government respect the principles on which the well-being of our nation rests. Our country depends on a delicate balance between the public and the private, between the collective and the individual, and within this framework faith communities have a particular obligation to witness when our core values are being trampled on by those seeking economic or political gain.
This is what we saw when people stood up against the unconstitutional, illegal and immoral slave trade through the Underground Railroad. This is what happened when people stood up against the unconstitutional, illegal and immoral state of affairs that characterized Jim Crow through the Civil Rights movement. This is what happened in the first Sanctuary Movement when our government was refusing haven to those people fleeing the violent governments our government had help to impose on their countries. This is where we are today when those who created a system where they could economically exploit and politically manipulate immigrants by denying them a path to citizenship—now want to turn around and deport the very people they have been exploiting for decades and decades.
We are talking about people who have been parts of our communities for decades. We are talking about adults raised in our country from the time they were born. We are talking about people who for decades have sought a path to citizenship.
It’s time for people of faith to stand with those are government is persecuting, as people of true faith have always done, so that by in sharing in their persecution we might wake up our fellow citizens to see the evils being done in our name.