“Jesus and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on March 4th, 2018

“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 2/24/18 at the Celebration of the Life of Letitia Byrd

“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 from Rev. Joe Summers – Feb 18 2018 – First Sunday of Lent

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 from Rev. Joe Summers Feb 14, 2018

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

Statement by Rev. Joe Summers at Washtenaw County Sanctuary Press Conference Feb 14 2018

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.

“Healing” – Reflections by Dana Aras at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Sunday, February 5, 2018


            What I have learned about healing, and experienced myself, is that there are three types of healing: psychological, physical and spiritual.  A teacher in my spiritual psychology class once said, “Some people are healed by grace but for the rest of us it’s a journey.”  I’d like to share with you today part of my own healing journey.

            I was born in Lithuania to a middle-class couple both of whom were depressed and unhappy with each other.  My sister, who was two years younger, said to me once, “Why did they have us if they did not know what to do with us?”   

            When I was 10 years old, World War II broke out and my homeland was occupied by the Russian army.  My closest relatives were deported to Siberia and the rest of us were living in uncertainty and fear.  About two years later, the German army showed up and my hometown became a frontline.  With the town burning, bullets flying and bombs exploding, German soldiers discovered my family hiding in our cellar and ordered us to get out.  Running, then standing against a brick building frozen in fear I felt that there was no escape.  We did eventually escape to the countryside and a few days later returned to the burned-out town.  Our house was there but it was occupied by German soldiers who allowed us to have one room in it.

            What followed a couple of years later was my family’s attempt to leave the country.  We were caught by armed German soldiers, underwent a frightening experience of being quarantined and then were taken to a labor camp where we slept in a bug-infested barrack, starved and where I was forced into hard labor with the adults.  As time passed, one day word reached us that the war was ending.  My parents, sister and I managed to escape from the camp and for a time open fields and chicken coops for spending the night became our home.  I was delegated to look for food or beg for it from the German farmers who were not generous or show any compassion.

            Eventually we ended up in a refugee camp in northern Germany, unable to return to our home in Lithuania because the great powers of Roosevelt and  Churchill  had “donated” the three small Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Stalin’s Russia.  Life in the refugee camp had its own challenges, but now we were free, young people could go to school, and Care packages from the United States helped with food and clothing.

            By this time, in my teenage mind I had come to the conclusion that I must be adopted.  Why else would a mother be so emotionally distant to her own child and why would either parent not show any personal interest in her. Regardless, it was easier for me to cope now because here I was making friends, doing well in school, being liked by my teachers, discovering my talents in acting, music and dance and really enjoying my young life.

            Two years quickly went by.  Then the Canadian government discovered a bunch of young people sitting idly in the camps and came to recruit them for labor in Canada.   After a rigorous selection process, I was accepted and signed a contract to work in Canada for a year as domestic help.  This was my ticket to freedom.  Saying goodbye to everything I had ever known, aboard a small wartime ship I began the next phase of my life.  On the rough waters of November sea I quickly began being seasick.  This lasted for the entire eleven days and by now I was so sick and weak that I became convinced I will die before reaching “the promised land.”  Thankfully I did not.

            Fast-forward now some 25 years.  I had been married for 22 of them, am now divorced and mother of four children.  The oldest one, a daughter, eloped and  got married while still in college, the next one, son, is on a psychiatric ward after attempting suicide by drug overdose and having been diagnosed with mental illness, and the two youngest daughters are five and nine years old.   I have no job, no money, am sitting at the kitchen table, aware that I’ve reached the end of my rope and that the thread of my life is about to break.  Then, something leads me to my bookcase and I pick up an old book of poetry which I had never read.  I open it and an ancient Persian poem hits my eyes:


            “When of thy mortal goods art thou bereft

              And when to thee only two loaves are left,

              Sell one, and with the dole

              Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

I get up and start moving.   . . .

Fast-forward again.

            New and different experiences begin to show up for me now.  I get into therapy, start participating in Alanon and do at that time very popular est training.  This begins opening new doors for me–into myself and also other new experiences–workshops, seminars, books and tapes, and anything else that looked helpful in recovering my own health and preventing the health of my young daughters from being affected more than it already was.

Fast-forward one more time.

            I am now in California, work in administration at a prestigious aerospace company and on weekends attend a masters program in spiritual psychology at a private university, graduating two years later.  During that same time I also continue with therapy and participate in several different 12-step programs. Somewhere among all this I finally learn that since early childhood I had been suffering from major depression and PTSD.

            Just as I begin dreaming about finally becoming “good enough” and beginning to practice my new profession, I learn that my son in Ann Arbor has been diagnosed with a serious case of Hepatitis C, in addition to still struggling with a difficult-to-accurately-diagnose mental illness.  After his wife leaves him, I invite him to come and live with me, convinced that as California has been healing me it will heal him also.  But my own healing journey is still far from over and my belief system still needs a lot of straightening out.  I quit my job by taking early retirement and over the next three and a half years devote all my time and energy to saving my son’s life.  Remembering those years that were hell on earth  for each of us, I am  still amazed that I did not totally lose my own sanity.   . .  . Words of the psalmist come to mind:  “He gives power to the faint and to him who has no might he increases strength (Isaiah 40:21-31).

            My son died at Arbor Hospice in Ann Arbor and the same guidance that took me to California returned me to Ann Arbor shortly afterwards.  One of my daughters  commented once: “My mom went to California to find herself; now she’s back and is still looking.”

            Thank you so much for your attention and for your open hearts.

An afterthought:

            For a long time I questioned myself why my life had been was so filled with suffering and lack and where I had missed the mark.  Then one day, unexpectedly, I just became aware how peaceful my life had become and while living in subsidized senior housing, with not much money in my pocket, how rich and fulfilled I have been feeling.  It’s an experience difficult to describe and I’m convinced that there are enough people alive who would trade all their riches for such an experience which no money in the world can buy.

“Rock & Roll and the Jesus Movement” Reflections from The Rev. Joe Summers Jan 28th, 2018

“Rock & Roll and the Jesus Movement” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Sunday January 28th, 2018.  Readings for the 4th Sun. of Epiphany:  Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, I Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28)




Some of the earliest religious practices that we know of emphasized communion with the Divine through playing drums.  This was what led Karl Pohrt to call his bookshop “Shaman Drum” because he saw books and reading as another vital way of communing with the Divine.  In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures prophets often sang their message.  The Koran is not the same book unless it is sung.  This means that as people who are called to listen to the Spirit, listen to God, speaking to us through all things, we not only want to listen to words, but also to the medium and what is being communicated through it.

Two of the great founders of Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, died this past year. Rock & Roll, along with Spirituals, the Blues, Jazz, Gospel Music, Country Music,  and Soul Music, have been among our country’s great contributions to world culture, so today, I want to take a little time to reflect on the birth of Rock& Roll, the youth movements it helped to inspire, and how they are similar too and different from the Jesus movement.

So first, what does a movement that begins with songs about dancing and romance have anything to do with the Jesus’ movement.    More than you would think.

Rock & Roll was born in midst of the 1950’s.  Today many often understand the 1950’s through the lens of Rock & Roll, but that’s not the world Rock & Roll was born into.  Following the life shattering horror of World War II many people craved a return to normalcy. For many, lives centered around home, family and jobs sounded like paradise.  People were easily manipulated by the fears that the war left them with. This combined with the specter and betrayal of the Soviet Union opened the door to the widespread persecution of dissidents that we know of as McCarthyism, in which so many of the people and forces that had promoted progress in our county in the 30’s and 40’s were persecuted. Rigid codes around areas like gender, race, class, and sexual orientation were enforced. In other words, beneath the surface of this era of great material prosperity it was a culture of fear.

People lived on a diet of fear—not just of nuclear war, but the fear of being judged or even being perceived as different.  Writing about this era in his book On The Road, Jack Kerouac would describe it as world in which people were so disconnected from their feelings that it drove those looking for meaning in life crazy.  Writing about this era, in her book The White Album, Joan Didion describes it as a remarkably interior world where you did not expect to really connect with others and therefore looked within yourself for whatever meaning life might offer.  I think Alan Ginsberg summarized the heart’s response to this culture of fear and conformity in the title of his poem “Howl.”

Rock & Roll was not only about music it was a youth movement.  It was a spiritual response to, even a flat-out rejection, of this fear-filled worldview.  You can feel it  in the incredible joy we heard  in Sam Clark’s version of “Johnny B. Goode” that we heard today and you can hear it in so much of Chuck Berry’s other music, this taking joy in life, taking joy in music, taking joy in body life, taking joy in personal agency, taking joy in movement, taking joy in sexuality, taking joy in being different, taking joy in being non-conforming, taking joy in breaking down rigid gender roles, taking joy in blurring the lines between white and black culture.  On the surface, some like Elvis Presley presented themselves as super patriotic and respectful of the authorities, beneath the surface, even from them, I think people heard and responded to this very different message.

Here we begin to find connections to the Jesus movement, the movement Jesus initiated among poor people in Galilee 2,000 years ago. In a time of scarcity and fear it too emphasized joy and celebrations like the wedding feast we hear about at the beginning of the Gospel of John. Those celebrations would go on for days, and I suspect involved lots of dancing, and John says Jesus’ first miracle was to make sure that the wine never ran out at one such celebration.

The Jesus movement was built around feasts and celebrations—sometimes involving thousands of people.   Even more than the Rock &  Roll subculture, the Jesus movement honored and celebrated difference. It rejected traditional roles for men and women.  Whereas the purity code of the 1950’s in this country was built around sex and race, in Jesus’ time it was built around eating practices and social hierarchy.   Through their eating practices the Jesus movement  helped to break down that purity code and that social hierarchy.  In the midst of a world that demeaned and devalued the bodies of the poor, Jesus was all about affirming and honoring the goodness of the body.

We hear in our gospel today wonderment about how Jesus could speak with such authority.  Real authority is rooted in real knowledge about something.  Spiritual authority is rooted in understanding Spirit and reality.  To speak the way he spoke, Jesus had to overthrow the various kinds of worldviews that people in his time were subject to that cut them off from their own experience.  Claiming his experience enabled Jesus to talk about the truths that arose from it and call on others to recognize the truths of their experience.

Cultural silence is a condition where people have lost their ability to speak to their own condition and be, as human are meant to be, co-creators of our world.  Cultural silence happens when people are subject to forms of cultural domination which cut them off from their experience and their ability to speak to it.  As a former colony and now an empire, our country has suffered from a long history of cultural domination.  We may have won our political independence in the American Revolution, but it would take much much longer before the European peoples in this country to stop mentally living in Europe and began to be able to see and articulate what life really was like in this county.

On one level, the period after World War II through the 1950s’s can be understood as the attempt by various forces in this country to re-impose a culture of silence on the peoples of this country and Rock & Roll can be understood as an attempt to find an antidote to colonized minds, colonized bodies, and colonized feelings.  Singing in tongue frees you to sing whatever words you want, or whatever melody or harmony you want to sing, so too, in Rock & Roll dancing became about a kind of simple expression of freedom of movement.  It was the very opposite of the rigid bodies and composure of white culture.  The celebration of happiness for happiness sake made the audacious claim, in Bruce Springsteen’s words, “That it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.”  The message that life is not meant to be all about self-sacrifice remains such a powerful important message.

Cultural silence becomes almost impenetrable when it takes the form of an objective cynicism that claims that the way things are is the way they have always been and always will be. It is one of the reasons why being young can be such a great gift as young people have often been less well educated into this idea and often seem to innately resist it enabling them to claim that things can be different.

I love the way the Who’s song “My Generation” articulates the process by which young people overcame the cultures of silence of the 1950’s through claiming and articulating their own experience of the world

People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Yeah, I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation).

Why don’t you all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Don’t try to dig what we all s-s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m not trying to ’cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

My generation This is my generation, baby

For me the incredible power of this song is that stutter.  It’s like “Yes …we may be a less articulate—but we’re who we are and here we are.” It’s the same proclamation we hear in Walden when Thoreau says “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”

It’s a testimony to the spiritual revolution that enables us to honor and claim our experience and I think there’s a direct connection between this spiritual revolution, that Rock & Roll helped to promote, and the dismantling of various structures of domination beginning with the Civil rights movement in the late 50’s, and through the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, the movements for self-determination, and the Womens’ movement of the 1960s, and leading on into the environmental movement and the movements for LGBTQ equality and the variety of other movements that have followed.

When you can begin to claim the authority of your own experience (not that it is the only source of authority, but without it it’s hard to navigate which authorities have any real credibility) it is like the horn of the Jubilee being blown.  Then the healing can begin.  Then the liberation can begin.   Overcoming your alienation from yourself and overcoming your alienation from others go hand in hand.  The kind of prophecy we hear about in the book of Deuteronomy comes to us when we are no longer in denial about reality and brings with it a vision for how to respond to it, how we can transform it.

I don’t want you to think that I’m conflating the movement that gave rise to Rock & Roll with the Jesus movement.  Though there are important parallels between them, there are also really important differences.

From early on Rock & roll got tied into materialism and the cult of the celebrity which is all about hierarchy and whose more important than whom.  The foundation of the Jesus movement was the claiming of a common humanity and the rejection of any form of identity that makes you think your superior to others.

Though it challenged some gender norms, Rock & Roll also got tied into a macho culture that particularly demeaned women and gay men.

Though Rock & Roll grew out of a fusion of the music of African American and European American traditions, particularly the Blues, Gospel, Country and Rockabilly and though it helped create some of the first large public inter-racial spaces in the South as it inspired young people of all races, often it went hand in hand with a cultural appropriation that did not acknowledge and credit those among whom it originated, particularly African Americans.

The cynical looking down on others that you often find among “cool people” is often found in Rock & Roll music and reflects the kind of elitism that thinks it is wise but, as we hear Paul say in his letter to the Corinthians today, is simply a matter of tearing others down.

Perhaps most importantly, inspired by Rock N Roll the youth culture that grew up in conjunction with it bought into the delusion that freedom could be had through escape and detachment into cars, music, mind alternating substances, relationships, oneself, or sub-cultures.  The Who’s move  “Quadrophenia” is a wonderful portrayal of how the quest for freedom that inspired Rock & Roll was thwarted and derailed by these delusions.  That’s what their song “We Wont’ be Fooled Again” is all about.

Now I want to close by reflecting on where we are now because, despite how it may appear on the service, I see our culture and our youth today facing a very similar kind of culture of fear that we were confronted with it the 1950’s.  I see many young people appearing to suffer from the same kind of malaise, fears, anxiety, world weariness, lack of joy in life, lack of belief in the possibility of real happiness, lack of awareness of their own agency, that I believe happens when we are cut off from ourselves and each other and the Spirit of life.   I see the kind of succumbing to the culture of silence that happens when we don’t trust and collectively try to interrogate and articulate the truths of our own experience.

 In Stevie Wonder’s words, we’ve “Been spending too much of our time living in a past-time paradise”.  For Donald Trump it seems to be the glory days of Jim Crow America. For many social justice activists it seems to be the culture of the 1960s.  For church folks—it’s often back there in church history and the early Jesus movement.  But the kind of future we are wanting can only be built here in the present and it begins with listening to the Spirit within us helping us to acknowledge, understand, articulate, and respond to our own experience and that of others.

Both the Jesus movement and early Rock & Roll are testimonies to what can happen if we stop running, if stop trying to find a niche or indenti-kit to fit into, and instead, facing our lives and world, open ourselves to the Spirit of Hope, the Spirit of healing,  the Spirit of Freedom, the Spirit of Joy, the Spirit of liberation, that is even now reaching out to us, wanting us to re-connect so that we might know the real happiness that is possible even amidst this broken world and so that we might discover our power to help with the mending of our world.

The early Rock & Roll movement and the Jesus movement tell us that visions and ideas are not enough. We need to learn how to practice them, practice Spirit, practice joy, practice freedom, or we will forget who we are and what we want to be about.  I know I found that dance parties were one of the best ways of protecting social change movements from becoming too puritanical, too rigid, too ideological.

Billy Joe has been one this community’s prophets trying to call us to the importance of dancing.  For me dancing is about practicing unitive being, being our whole selves, as it engages our minds, hearts, souls, feelings, and bodies.  We need such practices to help us cast out the demon of dualism, the demon that is constantly trying to demean us for being physical creatures, for having bodies, for having desires, for having feelings.

To be human is to love and unless we let ourselves love freely and boldly—we will have nothing with which to build the reign of love here on earth. But if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God had already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

Talk Given by the Rev. Joe Summers at Martin Luther King Day Poor Peoples’ Campaign Workshop at Eastern Michigan University – Jan 22, 2018

Talk Given at Martin Luther King Day Poor Peoples’ Campaign Workshop at Eastern Michigan University

 Name is Joe Summers. For over thirty years I’ve been the pastor of small congregation that has dedicated itself to working for social change—with much of this work focusing on mass incarceration and restorative justice.

I grew up in St. Louis Missouri and attended an integrated church during the time of segregation. When I was a child we used to slip out of church to play. One day, when I was about five or six years old, the older youth were playing tag when one of the youth, Clanton, ran out into the street to keep from being tagged and was hit by a car.  There was a prominent hospital within a few blocks of the church that would neither treat Clanton nor provide an ambulance to take him to the county hospital some thirteen miles away.  Clanton bled to death in the back of our choir director’s car.  That broke the heart of our community.  This mean that when Martin Luther King came along, preaching his vision of the beloved community, the community that knows it is beloved and fights that others would know their belovedness– our church responded.  I believe we sent three to four buses of people to Selma including many of the High School youth like my sister.

Now the Civil Rights Movement taught us the world was very different than what we thought it was like.   Because they were bullies and intimidating many of us were left believing that the majority of whites were hard core racists.  This led me to fear that there would be an all-out race war and a massacre because I knew the whites were so well armed.  Instead, we discovered that only ten or twenty percent of the white population were hard core racists.  That shocked us all.  It didn’t mean the other whites didn’t have issues, but it meant change was possible.

If my whole experience of the Civil Rights movement has left me a prisoner of hope—my participation in the anti-war movement in High School taught me that it is possible to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The anti-war movement was terribly important, but it lacked the guiding vision and discipline of the Civil Rights movement. The result was that as the injustice and harms were compounded and people got angrier and angrier and more and more afraid, combined with a lot of guilt, shame and self-righteousness, people turned on themselves and each other.  So, for example, you see SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) at a time when millions of student were looking to it for direction, simply implode into internecine warfare.

This brings me to the new Poor Peoples Campaign.  For most of the time since my childhood I’ve seen the racial and economic divide in this country continue to grow, a huge disinvestment from the public square and a turning away from the common good,  all partly related to the growth of a politics that blames victims and justifies neglect and which has led to the new Jim Crow our mass incarceration nation has created.

While over this period we’ve seen some great organizing based on identity politics: race, union, gender, sexual orientation, religion, we’ve also seen how identify politics alone tends to foster a distrust that keeps people from really being able to trust and work with people outside of their identity group.  The result is that we’re vulnerable to divide and conquer politics.

I believe the Poor People’s Campaign, with its vision of a moral fusion politics—that calls us to claim our identities—but also to grow beyond them, by learning to learn to care about, embrace, and work with people who are different then us, can take us to a new place.

I’ve also learned that the opportunities to really turn a country around are fairly rare and so I’m suggesting to you today, that whatever your life agenda is at the moment, you should seriously consider making the New Poor People’s campaign part of it.  Many missed out on the Civil Rights movement because they were going to school, working, raising kids, and they didn’t realize what a rare opportunity it was to make a difference.  I don’t think you want to miss this.

Lastly, the Poor People’s Campaign is not going to be for everyone.  Most people in our different identity groups are likely to remain so distrustful and cynical they won’t be able to believe that such a movement as this is possible or even desirable.  They won’t want to do the work the campaign insists we do in terms of coming to know each other across our differences and really embracing each other’s concerns.

The Poor Peoples Campaign is also insisting on some discipline that many will likely resist, but which I think is absolutely vital if we are not to going to turn on each other in the midst of our fears and anger, guilt and shame.

Lastly, I think a moral vision and an articulation of the values we have in common across all our differences—is absolutely vital– if we are going to create a movement instead of remaining stuck in our silos and be able overcome the kinds of divisions that separate us in so many different ways including the divisions between our secular and faith communities.  Thank you!

“The Human One and Being Free” – Reflection by Rev. Joe Summers January 21, 2018

“The Human One and Being Free”  Reflections by The Rev. Joe Summers given at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Sunday January 21st, 2018. (Readings for the 3rd Sun. After Epiphany: Jonah 3:1-5,10, Psalm 84, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20)




“ ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ …..and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” Mark 1:17 & 20

For me those brief lines from our gospel today speak to the freedom the disciples experienced through their encounter with Jesus, but also the price and pathos of that freedom.

Last week I talked about Jesus vision of “The Human One” as a vision of what it means to be truly human in opposition to the way the Kingdoms and empires have defined what it means to be human as having power over others.  Today I want to talk about the Human One in terms of the challenge of living as free human beings.

I don’t like the metaphor we find in our gospel about fishing for people. It makes me think of people being hooked and coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.  In contrast, my instinct is that people were drawn to follow Jesus partly because they experienced a kind of inner light, life, and freedom in Jesus, that I think they yearned to know in themselves. I know that’s part of what draws me.

The Jesus we encounter in the scriptures seems to have been a remarkably free person.  He doesn’t seem to need to follow the social, cultural, religious, gender, political scripts that people at the time were expected to follow.  In encounter after encounter you see him do, or say, something that seems surprising, totally unexpected. It’s as if he’s in a play in which everyone else is playing their parts and reading their lines and yet he’s speaking his own words and choosing to do what he wants to do in response to what he encounters.

For me this speaks to a kind of interior freedom that seems to have been rooted in Jesus’ experience of himself as beloved and pleasing to God.  This mean he goes around not needing to earn his worth in the eyes of others. (Imagine what we might have done, or might do, if we weren’t continually needing to prove ourselves acceptable to others.)   And this ability to write your own script, to let the dead bury the dead—that is to not feel the scripts and ideas from the past have to determine our lives or our futures—seems to have been infectious, seems to have inspired others to do the same.  Thus, we see people behaving in totally unexpected ways.  They drop everything to follow Jesus, ignoring the family codes and traditions which were thought of as the essential glue of their society and their faith as they refuse various family expectations whether they were about attending a funeral, getting married and having kids, or living under the direction of their parents.  But our gospel today also tells us there was a price for this new-found freedom.   One can’t but feel the pathos of Zebeedee who is left alone in the boat with his hired men, as his sons James and John go off and follow Jesus. One wonders if we’re not hearing the sorrow James and John might have felt about this—even years later.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul says “For freedom’s sake Christ has set us free.” In other words, freedom is a core constitutive value, a value in and of itself and yet it is not our only core value.  We live in an age that has made a fetish of individual freedom, a kind of idol, with stupid and deadly ideas like freedom is doing whatever you feel like doing regardless of the consequences to others, so it’s important to say that interior freedom, while a core value, cannot stand on its own, it stands in relationship to other core values like loving others and being committed to their well-being.

The “#me too” movement has helped shed a light on how many of us, particularly men, were taught that somehow our freedom meant we could engage in sexual activities with others, particularly women, without checking in with them to see if this was something they wanted. The male sexual revolution of the 1960’s challenged a wide variety of restrictions around sexual behavior and relationships that needed to be challenged, but it also seemed to say, as Marvin Gaye and some of my other favorite singers would sing, “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” We’ve learned that is simply untrue. Many of us perpetuated significant harms because of this lie that if it feels good to us it must feel good to others.  Many others of us have been harmed as a result.  Hopefully, we’re coming to a place where we’re learning how to both claim and honor our own experience while also listening to and honoring the experience of others.

 How do we help one another experience the interior freedom which is vital for us as human beings and yet also honor and care for one another?   Thinking about our community over the past year it has struck me how much we’re still struggling with learning how to be free while being in relationship, while being in community.

It’s not surprising as most of us have been incredibly poorly prepared for life in community.

Our country has a long history of collectivism in which the group dictates who and what the individuals within it could do, or think, or even feel.  If you’ve been marked with the mark of collectivism it is terribly hard to learn how to be in a community of free people as you are always expecting that you are just meant to follow the program.  This can also leave you without much tolerance for the kinds of disagreements and chaos that come with life among free people.  Or it may mean you have been left so hurt by collectivism that you keep your guard up and won’t entrust yourself to the group lest they try to control you.

Collectivism has in turn fostered a long history of radical individualism within our culture to the degree that you have many people who view everything through such an individualistic lens that everything becomes simply about their individual souls and they are unable to even see all the ways history and society are impacting us.

Radical individualism often fosters the idea that we are most free when we are detached from others. If you are already detached from people then they can’t use our attachment to them to coerce us.  Though many of us have come to find that freedom without bonds of attachment is “just another word for nothing left to lose.”

 Those who try to live without bonds of attachment to others tend to also strive to detach themselves from their bodies and their feelings because as social creatures we have needs that can’t be met except through others.  Thus, this kind of individualism often goes hand in hand with a kind of radical alienation from our bodies and our feelings.

If you have been marked with the mark of radical individualism, it’s hard to learn how to be part of a community of free people.  It’s easy to keep living your life as an isolated individual even in the midst of community.  If you do let yourself get attached to others, it can be hard to maintain your autonomy, hold onto your own truths and own experience, because previously you’ve only done this through being detached.

So, the practice of the community of the free is a kind crucible. We need to be compassionate with ourselves and one another as it is not easy and it’s likely to take us a long time to get figure out how to do it. For most of us, to be able to do it, is going to require a kind of rebirth.

Here are a few of the challenges I see many of us struggling with in terms of being free while growing in our attachment to others:

*To learn to do the dance of the free requires us to honor our own experience and truths, while opening ourselves to the experience and truths of others, yet most of us have difficulty doing this as we have been raised to have an either/or rather than a both/and perspective.

*Most of us have grown up in various forms of middle class culture in which we’ve been encouraged to stay pretty distant both from our own needs and those of others. Growing closer to one another makes us aware of all the different kinds of suffering that people are living with: things that have happened in the past, things that are happening in the present, things we are afraid are going to happen in the future.  Many of us don’t know how to live in relationship to suffering so we feel tyrannized by it to the degree that we either want to blame people for their suffering, or try to fix it, but there are so many different kinds of suffering we can’t do anything about except to be present to each other and love one another.  To be able to present to others and love them in the midst of their suffering means that most of us are needing new consciences, consciences that aren’t condemning us or others for their suffering, consciences that don’t condemn us when we make others aware of our own suffering.

*Thomas Merton once said, something to the effect, that “Grace is the ability to play in a world of suffering.” Most of us are still spiritual infants when it comes to learning how to live the life of grace which will allow us to live in relationship to suffering, our own and that of others, and still be able to feel free, still be able to experience joy and happiness. In the meanwhile, it can leave us wanting to flee or detach.

*Psychologists tells us that we have been programmed to have a bias towards pessimism.  They suggest that pessimism is one of the fruits of our evolution as a species as those who assumed the worst, or looked for the worst, tended to survive.  But going around seeing the worst, fearing the worst, all the time, is not much of a way to live and it makes life in community really difficult, as there always seem to be so many things to worry about or be afraid of.

I’m struck by how most of us are continually tempted to assume that everyone, or at least most people, are not like us.  This is easy to feel as most of us are petty unique. But the lie is that most other people are united in being different than us. We experience others as a collective “them” which is really simply a creation of our fearful imaginations. The result of this kind of projection is that it is easy for us to despair and feel alone and abandoned.  It’s easy for us to feel like no one’s ever going to be interested in whatever it is we’re interested in, or whatever it is we’re concerned about.  Thus, so often, we don’t even begin the long slow process of beginning to share our interests and concerns with others and seeing who might ultimately come to share those interest and concerns.   I find that when people share their concerns and desires over time—others respond to them, but it’s often a long slow process.

*Lastly, my experience of most churches is that they have a little sign outside the door that says people come here to not feel disturbed so please leave your difficult feelings at the door.   This means that when people come into a church where people are sharing their feelings—it can feel pretty crazy and even upsetting.  Hopefully, in and through the Holy Spirit we will continue to grow in our ability to hold our feelings so that over time they can become sources of wisdom, wealth, and blessing for us all.

I believe that part of what draws us to spiritual community is the desire to experience freedom.  Yet, as creatures so programed to respond to the expectations of others, that if a group is facing the back of an elevator most of us will do the same, it’s an incredible challenge to find our way forward to being free while being in relationship to others.  If we can’t do it, most of us will either live our lives feeling burdened and resentful, or walk away like Huck Finn, always dreaming of the place, the community, where we can feel free to be ourselves.  I think many of us are coming to realize it not a matter of finding a certain community, but our learning to dance the dance of the free.

If things continue to progress as they have been in this community there are going to be more and more small groups doing different activities.  If we aren’t reflective and don’t claim our freedom we’re likely to either try to force ourselves to do things we really can’t or don’t want to do, or to feel resentful or distrustful of those who are doing what we don’t feel called to do, or tempted to coerce others to do what we think they should do.  All of those are forms of dishonoring ourselves and others as free people.  I want to be clear here. We need to talk and to be able to disagree with people.  That’s not a problem, that’s pretty vital.  I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about trying to coerce ourselves, or others, in a way that violates are inherent dignity.  I’m talking about living in relationship to ourselves or others in a way that keeps us from feeling the joy of freedom and the creativity that arises from it.

Being free, practicing freedom, while growing closer to others is I think something most of us long for, but it’s not just going to happen naturally as there are so many forces that prey upon us. Being free is at the heart of what it means to live fully as human beings, not dominated or controlled by the past, not ruled by the dead or the living, but it requires that we learn to live by the Spirit, to trust the Spirit that allows us, in Pauls’ words today, to see that the “present form of this world is passing away,” that nothing human is permanent and fixed, which means almost everything is transformable—thank God.

A new world composed of free human being is struggling to be born, but we are not going to be able to be part of that new world, much less create it, unless we ourselves learn how to practice and to be free human beings, in our lives and in our relationships and within this community.  That’s part of the enormous challenge before us.  But if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

“The Game of Thrones versus the Human One” – Reflection by Rev. Joe Summers Jan 14, 2018

“The Game of Thrones versus the Human One” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on January 14th, 2018. (Readings for the 2nd Sun. Aft. Epiphany: I Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 138:1-5,12-17, Excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, John 1:43-51)



“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Human One.” John 1:51

 I want to talk today about the Game of Thrones versus the Human One—the only title Jesus of Nazareth ever claimed for himself.

Ove the holidays I was able to catch up on two seasons of “Game of Thrones.”  I love it, but I’m not necessarily recommending others see it. It has great characters and plot development, but it’s also very violent. For me it’s essentially about the story of kingship, that is the pursuit of kingship is the game of thrones.  It’s a fascinating fictional study.  All these kings and queens from all these different cultures, all thinking their running the show, but what you see is how the show is running them. It illustrates the line from the Waylon Jennings song “It’s not supposed to be that way” when he sings “Be careful what you’re dreaming—or soon your dreams will be dreaming you.” They play all these games to seize power, expand it and keep from losing it.  In the process, almost all of them get involved in lying, murder, torture, exploitation, and often sadism.  They also help create and perpetuate the grounds of sexism, racism, and the war on difference as all of these tend to be intimately tied to the warfare state and imperialism.   But if you think this is simply fiction read the books of First and Second Kings in the Bible. They tell the story of monarchy in Israel and it’s the same story.  If you read the story of the Roman Emperors it’s the same story.  In a way, you almost become struck by how unimaginative evil is as so many seem to get involved in the same kinds of perversities including killing members of their own families.  If kingship were a deadly disease, I would suggest it’s probably killed more people than any of the other worst plagues in human history.

If there is a good simple history of the idea of kingship and when and how it entered human history I haven’t read it.  My understanding is that it’s an idea that seemed to come into the world around 5,000 BC which is around the beginnings of recorded history.  We don’t know much about life before the kingdoms, but life appears to have been quite different as the archeological record suggests that amidst what were large settled agricultural populations there was a much greater degree of social equality as reflected in the size of their houses. In contrast, as kingship arrives you suddenly have very different sized houses depending on someone’s status.  You even have kings wanting to be buried with a lot of their wealth and sometimes even with their wives and slaves.  Once the horse was domesticated it became possible to plunder, kill or enslave whole populations.

Now after several thousand years of this kind of bloody history something different began to happen around the world.  The German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term the Axial Age to describe this new phenomenon. In the roughly five hundred years between the 8thand the 3rd Century BC new ways of thinking appear in Persia, India, China, and the Greco-Roman world with seemingly little direct connection between them.  This is the period in which we find Confucius and Lao-Tse living in China and from their thought we see the development of Confucianism and Taoism.   In India, we find Buddha and the development of Buddhism. In Iran, Zarathustra and the development of Zoroastrianism. In Israel, it was the era of the great prophets from Elijah and Isaiah to Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah.  In Greece, it was the golden age of philosophy with writers and thinkers like Homer, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Thucydides and Archimedes.

For Jaspers, the Axial age was “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pulse for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.”  In her book, The Great Transformation, Karen Armstong has proposed that this rebirth of human consciousness happened as people reflected on the previous centuries of genocide and the devastation that arose from the vision of kingship and empire.  It was a time in which people reflected on what it means to be human and what human life, or a good life, is really about and they came up with answers very different than the answers assumed by the model of kingship.  Though they have very different approaches and come up with many different answers, the fact that all these different cultures should be engaged in a similar quest suggests a humanity collectively struggling to find its way towards a new kind of consciousness.

Now, before I talk about Jesus, I want to say that the discussions of the Axial age seem to miss a vital chapter about humanity’s relationship to kingship and empire and that is the story we have in the Hebrew Bible of the period between 1200 and 1,000 BC when a new nation emerged, a nation which was determined to be a non-kingdom.  Ancient Israel was to be known as the Kingdom of God because it was to have no king but God.  When you read about this confederation it’s striking how many of their practices seem to have been created in opposition to the ways of the kingdoms.  Israel was to have no standing army.  The whole vision of kingship is a vision of power gained and maintained through military force.  Kings engaged in warfare as a way to expand their wealth and power.  It’s hard to do that with a volunteer army.  Lest you think this was just some lovely romantic dream—the Israelites also had a policy that when they did go to war no one was allowed to claim any booty and prisoners were to be killed.  Though that is very brutal it appears to have been about taking the incentive out of war because part of the game of warfare was that while poor people were slaughtered the nobles and warlords were often captured so they could be ransomed.  It’s much less fun to go to war with people for whom it is not a game.

It’s also a culture that as part of its vision of what it means to be a free people– put at the heart of its life the idea of the Sabbath. It is a vision that people were not made for work but work for people. It also puts clear limitations on the accumulation of wealth by saying all creatures, people and animals, need a day of rest each week.

Lastly, perhaps to justify their vision of a violent universe that could only be appeased through blood—most of the kingdoms in the area practiced child sacrifice, but in Israel it was prohibited, though when Israel turns back to having kings it keeps showing up again and again.

Israel only lasted as nation without a king for something like two hundred years, but the memory of that era remained an incendiary memory that was used to evaluate the much longer period that followed.   When John the Baptist and Jesus begin talking about the Kingdom of God being at hand—it would have evoked that collective memory.

If the idea of kings seems to have driven people crazy for thousands of years— in his teachings on the way of The Human One we see Jesus claiming a counter vision of what it means to live as free human beings and as children of the God of freedom.  That is, I think in his discussion of The Human One and God’s vision for the earth and her peoples  Jesus was in part challenging the ideological and spiritual foundations of the kingdoms and their vision of power over others.

“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Human One.”

Epiphany, epi-phanos– means “revelation of the face.” It’s classically understood to refer to the revelation of the face of God, but perhaps we also need to understand it as the revelation of the face of true humanity. Epiphany begins with the story of the wise men who followed the star and the birth of a new kind of king, a child of God, and the revelation of God in the face of the baby Jesus.  Last week we heard the story of the revelation that happened when Jesus was baptized.  This Sunday we hear about another kind of revelation in the call of the disciples.

I think it is helpful if we let ourselves feel what strange stories the calling of the disciples’ stories are.  Jesus talks to people, or seeks them out, and invites them to follow him and then, seemingly with almost no preparation, they leave everything to do it.

Have we ever encountered something that led us to be willing to leave our lives as we have known them to embark on a journey into the unknown?  It doesn’t seem wise. Usually, it would strike us as pure foolishness and probably most of the time it is—but I would also suggest that beneath the surface many of us have been caught by a vision, heard a call, that has moved us in such a way that, whether we realize it or not, we’ve dedicated our lives to following it.  We like to think of ourselves in terms of the 19th century liberal romantic vision that we are masters of our own destinies and yet, if we look more closely, I suspect many of us will find we are much more like these disciples—caught by a revelation we don’t fully understand—unable not to pursue it.

Now John explains the disciples’ whole-hearted response in terms of the hope for the Messiah. People were waiting expectantly for the Messiah—the one who will deliver them from the Roman occupation, the one who will usher in a new age of justice, equality, and peace. But even if that’s true, what was it about Jesus that led people to imagine him as the Messiah?   Because the Messiah was usually envisioned as a warrior or a king and Jesus was neither.

What I want to suggest today is that perhaps what moved their hearts and rocked their world was that in Jesus they encountered “The Human One,” one who embodied what it means to be truly human.  Jesus gives us an important clue as to what it means to be truly human when he describes “The Human One” as one on whom the angels of God ascend and descend.  The Human One is one in whom heaven and earth meet and are in intimate dialogue. It is to be fully human, but also, to use the Quaker phrase, to be one in whom there is “that of God.” (“There is that of God in every person.”)    If this is true, it means that Jesus probably did not discourage discussion of him as the Messiah, simply to delay his confrontation with the powers, but also because he understood that the whole understanding that people had of what the Messiah was to be about—might keep them from being able to hear or understand his message about the Human One and what it means to be children of God.

Two thousand years later, watching the Game of Thrones on TV or in contemporary world politics, it can feel like wow—what has changed? We still have all these folks holding up the idea of power over others in their worship of the rich and powerful and trying to be like them.  Many seem to be wearying or even frightened of democracy and social equality.  It’s striking how much people still don’t seem to see the connections between wealth and immiseration, between power and powerlessness, between racism, sexism, militarism, poverty, and the degradation of our planet and its creatures including the dehumanization of people.

The dream of kingship guided the peoples of the world for perhaps 6,000 years, it feels like Western Civilization has taken the vision of the Human One seriously for less than 500 years and in some ways only really seriously for the last hundred years.  I would like to briefly highlight a few of the ways that the vision of the Human One has grown exponentially in our time as I think they are signs of the new humanity and new world that is struggling to be born and the kind of shifts in thinking that has led Karen Armstrong to believe we are in the midst of a new Axial age.

The emergence of the women’s movement over the last two hundred years testifies to a shift from a vision of women as the property or subordinates of men to seeing women as the equals of men. It has brought with it a whole different understanding of what it means to be human and how we can structure our most intimate relationships.  We can’t over state how significant a change this is.  Women didn’t get the right to vote in this country until 1920.  That’s the year my mother was born.  Her mother, my grandmother, through most of her life would never sit to eat with men, but instead would stand to serve them and eat afterwards.  Only in my lifetime have we even had language for things like sexual harassment and sexual abuse.  Even the fact that we can now name these abuses is enormous progress.

Simultaneously, over the last two hundred years we’ve seen a growing struggle for a world that is no longer controlled and dominated by the those who own capital.  The struggle to build a world where, as it says in the Book of Acts, each gives according to their ability and receives according to their needs.  It’s striking how hard its proved to be to figure out how to move beyond the paradigm that simply replaced aristocracies based on hereditary with those based on wealth.

After two world wars in which Western Civilization seemed clearly on the verge of destroying itself—around the world peoples began trying to throwing off the mantles of colonialism and racism.  Again, those mantels have proved to be so much deeper and more difficult to overthrow than simply replacing some people with others.

Coming out of World War II, in 1948, the United Nation’s adopted the Declaration of  Universal Human Right, which Eleanor Roosevelt drafted and promoted, with its recognition that simply by virtue of being human—people have rights that need to be recognized by all.

The anti-colonial struggles and the growing awareness of human rights helped to strengthen the attempt to democratize and to challenge the caste system in this country and the forces of imperialism within it through the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.  Again, because our society seems to perpetually suffer from historical amnesia, it’s important to recognize how recent and profound these changes have been.  Deena helped to raise me when I was a child.  Her grandmother had been a slave.

The civil rights and anti-war movements in turn helped to energize so many important movements that have called for the recognition and honoring of different aspects of our humanity: indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBT, a renewed women’s movement.

The first Earth day celebration happened in 1970 testifying to a growing ecological movement and consciousness that has helping us to see how we as human beings need to be in a new relationship with our planet and its creatures—if we are going to be truly human, if we are going to survive.

There are so many other things I could highlight in terms of our growing understanding of what it means to be truly human, what a humanized humanity might look like, and how we might get there, but in conclusion I just want to close by focusing on Martin Luther King who for me is one of the most important prophets the world has ever seen, like all of us radically imperfect, but one on whom I experienced the angels of God ascending and descending.

It’s not clear whether or not we are going to be able to turn away from the paradigm of domination in time to save our species, but if we are able to its going to be partly because Martin Luther King did so much to help us understand the way of the Human one, and how through truth struggle we can engage the ideas that have divided and enslaved us, kept us at war with one another and our own humanity and are now threatening to destroy us as a species.

Has there ever been more hope and more despair happening at the same time in history? A new humanity is struggling to be born, a humanity in which diversity and our commonalities are honored through a vision of the common good, a humanity that honors the planet and her creatures.  At the same time—we see so much reaction, so much fear, so much mindless pursuit of greed and power over others, and so much cynicism to the extent that many have come to believe that humanity itself is somehow innately at odds with the well-being of our planet.

The Jesus we encounter in our gospel today was beginning to recruit people into a campaign to show others how we could live paradise, heaven on earth.  From the time Jesus began recruiting people until his death was less than three years and yet—those three years changed the course of human history.  Martin Luther King was killed trying to organize a Poor Peoples’ Campaign to call for the recognition of the fundamental dignity, worth, and needs of all those being discriminated against because of their poverty, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity. King was killed before this campaign really had a chance to come to fruition.  Now, 50 years later, the mantle of that campaign has been taken up by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis—to tackle the evils of racism, militarism, economic injustice, environmental devastation, sexism and the other evils that King saw are so inextricably linked you can’t address one without addressing them all.  We don’t know how successful this campaign will be in helping us to redeem our society and our humanity, but it is an opportunity to make a difference.

It is clear heaven is calling us, the Human One is calling us.  A humanity born not of fear and coercion but of love and freedom is struggling to be born.  We must help it to be born before the soul sickness that keeps us addicted to power over others kills us all.  In the midst of this frightening, but beautiful struggle, may we remember that if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen