“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)

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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)

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“ ‘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)

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“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

“Everything is Waiting for You”  – Reflections by Rev. Joe Summers Jan 7, 2018

“Everything is Waiting for You” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on January 7th, 2018.  (Readings for the 1st Sun Aft. Epiphany-B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 89:20-29 ,  Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11)

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Video

Please sing with me: “Bless the Lord my soul and Bless God’s Holy Name.

Bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life.” (Taize)

“Everything is Waiting for You” by David Whyte

Your great mistake is to act the drama

 as if you were alone. As if life

 were a progressive and cunning crime

 with no witness to the tiny hidden

 transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny

 the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

 even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

 the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

 out your solo voice. You must note

 the way the soap dish enables you,

 or the window latch grants you freedom.

 Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

 The stairs are your mentor of things

 to come, the doors have always been there

 to frighten you and invite you,

 and the tiny speaker in the phone

 is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the

 conversation. The kettle is singing

 even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots

 have left their arrogant aloofness and

 seen the good in you at last. All the birds

 and creatures of the world are unutterably

 themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

For me this is a poem about taking our place in the world of things.  The world of things the way Fran Mayes was talking about them last week, not as the world of materialism and it’s valuing of objects over people, but the world of creation, the world of physical and material reality.

I think Saint Augustine was speaking of this world when he said “Love calls us to the things of this world.”  Richard Wilbur took that line as the title of a poem he wrote about seeing fresh laundry blowing in the wind on a roof top in Italy and it’s reminding him of visions of angels—only to come to conclude that seeing fresh laundry in the sunlight and wind is as good as seeing visions of angels. There is so much goodness and beauty and love in this world—if we can open ourselves to it.  But there’s the rub—how can we be open to it—how can we let ourselves receive it.

“Bless the Lord my soul and Bless God’s Holy Name.

Bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life.” (Taize)

For myself, faith is significantly about opening my heart to receiving the gift of this life, the gift of my humanity, this gift of this world, this universe.  If someone would have said something to me like that when I was a child I would have said—“then who needs it?” because I was wide open to life when I was young.  There were years when every day I woke up excited about what the day would bring, excited about this world and its peoples and its mysteries.  I dwelt in that world that Wordsworth speaks of in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood”  when he wrote:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

Turn wheresoe’er I may,

By night or day.

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The Rainbow comes and goes,

And lovely is the Rose,

The Moon doth with delight

Look round her when the heavens are bare,

Waters on a starry night

Are beautiful and fair;

The sunshine is a glorious birth;

But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

(And then he continues further on)

…..Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

Now I’m not going to say I understand why Wordsworth began to feel that loss of glory as he grew older. Elsewhere, in his sonnet, “The World is Too Much With Us” he speaks of how the world of business and materialism rob us of paradise:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

But for me it had to do with great losses: a neighborhood where I felt at home, a group of best friends, a beloved church—and without them the discovery of how cruel people could be, how terrifying life could be, how lonely life could be. Year by year after I left St. Louis my soul began to retreat further within me.  What was once a daily experience of glory became rarer and rarer to the point where I could no longer remember the glory and thus became a dupe for those, including myself, who would sell me false versions of it.  Ultimately, this led to the darkest night, a night in which I thought I had forever lost my humanity and this world and only the horror and terror of that sheer and utter desolation propelled me to begin my journey back to this world and back to my soul.

And in this place the Jesus story became a doorway back to the world and self that I had lost.  Not a pretty story.  Not a story with a happy ever after ending.  But a story that spoke to my experience of life in this world and with it—the hope that death and meaninglessness might not be the final word.

As we hear in Genesis today it is story premised on the goodness of this world and creation.  It also recognizes the world of oppression and death and I don’t find any clear explanation of how we got from one to the other—or more mysteriously how both can exist simultaneously.

In the midst of all that, we have these stories of The Human One, Jesus of Nazareth. Where John begins the story of Jesus before the beginning of time and space, and Matthew and Luke begin the story with Jesus’ birth, Mark, our earliest gospel, begins the story with this story of Jesus as an adult being baptized in the river Jordan by John and the revelation that happens in the midst of it.   As he’s coming out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens “torn apart” and the spirit descending on him like a dove and he hears a voice from heaven proclaim: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus baptism tells us what it means to be baptized by the Spirit: to be held in love, guided in love, educated in love and led and emboldened by the Spirit of Love.  Mark then tells us the story how, in three short years, Jesus overturns the world.  His gospel ends with the disciples fleeing the empty tomb in terror—leaving us to understand he was only writing the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ and we are to write the next part.

This cracking open/tearing open of that which separates us from heaven (it’s a violent image) somehow is key. In my experience, its partly about our need to be broken open if we are going to live being vulnerable, rather than in the prison cell of our trying to be safe by being in control of everything, so that we can experience again—or perhaps experience for the first time—the glory.

The glory, that it says in Psalm 29 is “a voice of splendor, a voice that splits flames of fire and shakes the wilderness and strips the forests bare.” The Letter to the Hebrews says “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31).  It’s no wonder for falling into the hands of the living God, being truly alive, is to live in close proximity to the glory, is to see and know it around us and within us and have it shake us and strip us so that we are fully alive again.

And this is why most of us need help, need guidance, need support, need affirmation—to be able to enter into life, to be baptized into this world, this world as it is—without the blinkers that keep us from seeing it in all its fullness.  To see this world the way we often are only able to see it in dramatic moments like when we are present to the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one, or looking out onto the milky way, so that we can learn to live not trying to tame the glory, not trying to control it, but appreciating it in all its wonder. So that, in David Whyte’s words, we can let this great mystery hold us and empower us so that we can become ourselves and let go of our aloneness and discover the intimacy and how much we belong in this world of things.

For if we are willing, God is able and if we are ready, God had already gone ahead to

prepare a way for us.  Amen

“The Revelation of the Human One” – Worship Service December 31st, 2017

A sermon by the Rev. Joe Summers of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, an LGBT-affirming church in Ann Arbor, MI.

“The Revelation of the Human One” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers on December 31st, 2017 at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Readings for the first Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7, John 1:1-18)

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As part of continuing to try to unpack the meaning of Christmas, I want to make a few comments about each of our scriptures today.

First, in Isaiah today we hear the prophet cry out over the people of Israel—“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”

For Isaiah, Jerusalem is the symbol of the people of Israel.  For me it is a symbol of the state of humanity as it embodies everything from our painful collective history of domination, exploitation, warfare, and exclusion to the beauty of our art, architecture, music, literature and peoples.  So today, on the verge of this new year, I want to say:  “For Humanity’s sake I will not keep silent  until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”  This Christmas may we know the gift of the love of humanity.

Secondly, understanding Jerusalem as a symbol of humanity, its tragedy but also its glory, its continued love affair with domination, but also its yearning for peace, then allows me to hear our psalm as the early church heard it, as a promise—not to one particular ethnic group—but to all people—the promise of the One who gathers the exiles, heals the broken hearted, rebuilds what has been destroyed, lifts up the lowly and cast down the wicked, provides food for the hungry and who intends to establish the reign of peace on earth.  This Christmas may we know the gift of the God who cares and works for the well-being of all.

Third, we have this very simple but powerful revelation in Galatians today, a revelation that is still resisted to the point that we don’t even hear it.  Paul says we are no longer to live as slaves, but rather claim our freedom as children of God and inheritors of the Kingdom.  After this passage, he goes on to say that if we continue to act like slaves, by putting ourselves under the law, making written words rule over us, we are forfeiting the freedom which is at the heart of our salvation.  In other words, interior freedom is inextricably linked to salvation. When have we heard that message?  Do we take it seriously?  Or are we still tempted to live our lives as if there is a rule book that can tell us how to respond to everything we encounter in life?  This Christmas might we be open to the gift of our freedom and what it means for how we are to live.

Lastly, we have these incredible words from the Gospel of John. For me they are some of the most powerful words in the English language or any language.  On this the first Sunday after Christmas they present us with John’s incredibly moving vision of Christ and Christ –mas.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

We are hearing a re-telling of the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  The difference here is that the heavens and earth are created through the Word and we know that the Word lives in us and the Word lives through us so the accent is not just on creation but on creating.  Creating is at the heart of the life of God and that life lives in us.  May we recognize what a gift that is.

“He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John is telling the beginning of the story of Jesus, not as a child born in Bethlehem but as the Universal Christ, the embodiment of Wisdom who was God’s handmaid and helpmate in the creation of the world.  Again, the implications are staggering to the point of being mostly unheard and rejected.

First, if all thing were created through Christ, then there are no longer any grounds for declaring any people or any thing to be innately evil or impure.

Secondly, it means that God and Christ are present everywhere.  There is no longer an excuse for some people imagining that they are bringing Christ/God to people.  They may help to reveal Christ/God within and among people but you can’t bring them because they are already there.  It also means that if the Spirit gives rise to the world of things, the world of things is not to rule over the Spirit, or over us.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him…But to all who received him…he gave power to become children of God.”

Into the world of domination, a world in which Cesar and kings were known as sons of God, immortals, suddenly we hear this revolutionary message that God seeks for all to know themselves as her or his children.

“And the Word became flesh and lives among us, and we have seen his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the Only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Incarnation, the Word or Spirit becoming flesh, in human bodies, in human actions that are revelations of grace and truth.  If we can get beyond the gendered language what we hear is a proclamation about the fullness of grace upon grace.  It’s like another big bang of hope and Spirit bringing into existence not just a new humanity but a new universe.

Lastly, I think this whole text calls on us to reflect on the humanity of God.  It’s an idea  that scares many of us because we have so often seen the living God made into an idol based on various debased visions of humanity: God the judge, God the bloody warrior, God the King, God the patriarch.  We absolutely need to be aware of our temptation of making God into our own image.  That’s a truth that we need to hold onto.  But perhaps the opposite truth is that human beings need a human God to show us what it means to be human, what being human is really about.  Maybe until we see God as human we won’t ever be able to reconcile ourselves to our humanity, our bodies, our feelings, our needs and desires; we’ll keep thinking it is all some kind of mistake.

In the first chapter of Ezekiel we hear that in the in the thirtieth year of the exile in Babylon, on the fifth day of the four month, Ezekiel was among the exiles by the river Chebar, when the heaven were opened and he saw visions of God.  Ezekiel goes on to say that at heart of the visions of the heavens, above the firmament over the heads of the angels, “there was a likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form…Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.   And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.  And he said to me, ‘Human One, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you.’ ”  (Ezekiel 1:26-2:1)

It’s a striking prophecy, a vision of God appearing in human form, a vision of a God seeking out the prophet as a Human being.

The only title Jesus claimed for himself was the title “The Human One”* so it’s pretty striking that that while the early church claimed all sorts of titles for Jesus (Messiah, Christ, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords) it’s the one title the early church seemed to leave behind.

“The Human One” is a mysterious phrase.  We find it in a few places in the Bible including the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.  When Jesus uses it he sometimes seems to be talking about himself, other times he seems to be talking about something larger than himself.  One of the times we hear Jesus uses it is in his trial before the high priest, the chief priests and the elder and the scribes.  Mark reports that towards the end of the trial the high priest asks Jesus “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” and Jesus responds, “I am; and you will see the Human One seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 15:61-62)   Mark reports that on the basis of that statement Jesus is found guilty of blasphemy and deserving of death.

It is perhaps this prophecy that led the early church to mistakenly believe that Jesus was physically going to return to overthrow every power and principality and to bring about the final fulfillment of the reign of God on earth within a generation.  I think it’s to the church’s credit that the scriptures don’t cover up this error. I would also suggest that it’s long past time that we consider whether when Jesus was talking about “The Human One coming in Power with the clouds of heaven”, whether he was talking about his physically coming back to earth, or whether he was presenting a vision of how he would return to redeem the world in and through the new resurrected humanity which he held up in his teachings on the Human One.

The Goods news of God in Christ is in part, God revealed in and through human flesh, not to condemn humanity, but to help us see and experience the grace and glory that can be part of our lives as human beings if we would embrace our humanity and the way of the Human One, the way of the One who, Paul says in his letter to the Philippians—did not count equality with God as some thing to be grasped—but poured himself out in love for others.  As the theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it, on the cross Jesus restored to us the face of the humanity we had forsaken in our attempts to be little gods.

In this world of domination and degradation, John presents us with a lens that can enable us to see how, in the midst of all the suffering and crap (and I do mean crap) that we as human being have to endure—there is the possibility of knowing in and through this life and this world, grace and truth, love and glory and this good news has set the hearts of the poor on fire ever since. Perhaps it is now long past time that we come to claim the gift of our humanity and claim the reign of the Human One in our lives and world.

For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

*Walter Wink’s book The Human Being is about this phrase and how it appears in the scriptures.  The literal translation of the phrase is “the son of the man” and so is often translated “Son of Man.”  Wink and others argue, that the phrase is simply meant to refer to human beings.  Some more recent translations have translated this phrase as “Mortals”, but Wink argues that Jesus teachings about the “The Human One” were in part about what it means to be human.  A shorter discussion of all this can be found in Wink’s short memoir Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human which he wrote at the end of his life as he was facing dementia.

“The House of God” – Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers, December 24th, 2017.

“The House of God” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December 24th, 2017. (Readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent: 2nd Samuel 7:1-11,16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38)

Video

The King David we hear about in our scriptures today seems sweet, but a little foolish. He tells the prophet Nathan he wants to build a fancier place for the ark of the covenant to be put in.  He’s apparently embarrassed that he’s living in a cedar house, but the ark of God is still in a tent.  One wonders if perhaps subconsciously he wasn’t looking for reason to justify his fancy house, or maybe even build a palace for himself in the future.

Nathan tells him that sounds good, but that night God comes to Nathan and Nathan hears the Lord say: “I’ve never asked you for a house” (which I take to mean it’s not something God’s ever needed). “Instead I will build you a house, a nation where my people will be protected and evil doers will afflict them no more and this kingdom will last forever.”

It’s a striking prophecy.  David’s son Solomon will build the temple God has not asked for and not a temple of wood but a massive stone temple–one of the great wonders of the ancient world.  According to 2nd Samuel Solomon becomes like a new Pharaoh building this temple as part of his attempt to make Israel a glorious empire.  Under Solomon the prophet Samuel’s warnings about what would happen if Israel chose to have a King are all fulfilled.  The people of Israel will lose their freedom and end up serving a King, not God.  Like Pharaoh, Solomon uses slave labor and conscripted labor to build the Temple. Under his reign you see the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor as reflected in the court around Solomon and all the hundreds of wives and concubines he maintained. Those wives and concubines also reflect Solomon’s love of imperial politics as this was a way of forging political alliances in the ancient world.  All that wealth has to come from somewhere and so you know the exploitation of others was increasing greatly.  With Solomon as their model the kings of Israel will lead the Kingdom of Israel to its destruction.  Throughout this whole period, part of why these kings and rulers of Israel ignored all the warnings of the prophets is that they held onto this prophecy that the Kingdom of Israel would last forever.

If Nathan heard this prophecy correctly, it’s a great example of how what we think God is saying, may not be what God is really saying.  To me it’s a credit to the composers of the bible that they leave us with this complex story of a prophecy that seems to promise a kingdom that will last forever while also telling the story of the destruction of that kingdom.   As a nation that’s often thinks of itself as exceptional in a similar way, such that we don’t take the wrongs we are doing seriously or listen to our prophets, it is a story we might want to pay attention to.

Now for the writers of the New Testament, the prophecy of a Kingdom that will last forever will be fulfilled in a descendent of David, Jesus of Nazareth.   But his Kingdom will be the antithesis of the kingdoms David and Solomon envisioned.

It will be a kingdom built not through military power and conquest and economic exploitation, as the kingdoms of David and Solomon were built, but instead among and through the hearts of the poor.

The upside-down nature of this kingdom is reflected in our gospel today.  I can’t think of anytime in the bible up until now that angels came and talked with women, but now, Gabriel comes and addresses Mary saying “Greetings, Favored one. The Lord is with you.”  This is particularly significant because at the heart of the Christmas story is the vision of Emmanuel—“God with us.”

Mary is perplexed.  What is going on? Why am I being greeted by an angel and why am I being greeted in this way?  The angel continues “You shall bear a son who will inherit the throne of his ancestor David and his reign and his kingdom will last forever.” (You could see how a prophecy like this could lead people to think that Jesus would become a new ruler in Israel.)

Mary says: “How can this be for I am a virgin?” Gabriel replies: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and therefore the child born to you will be called Son of God.”   After Gabriel explains that this can happen because with God all things are possible, we then hear Mary embrace this wild vision with the words: “Let it be to me according to your word for I am the servant of the Lord.”

I want to point out how this story is a kind of re-telling of the story we heard in 2nd Samuel.  In both you have this discussion about a Kingship and a Kingdom that is everlasting. In both we have this discussion about a house of God.  As part of Luke’s story of the new temple of God we need to understand that the Temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans not long before Luke wrote his Gospel.  Luke’s gospel presents the vision that the new temple of God is not a building, but a temple of human flesh.

Mary’s body will literally be the temple of God, the temple which will house God’s spirit and God’s son.  “Ave Maria (Hail Mary) full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Mary is the image, the revelation, of God dwelling in us.

The central mystery of Christmas is the Incarnation and its vision of God revealed in and through human flesh. As it says in “Mary Did you know?” that wonderful song Edie sang last week:

“Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God

Mary did you know,

The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I Am.”

When you kissed your little baby—you kissed the face of God.  The revelation of Jesus as a reflection of God opens the door to us being able to see God in every human face, every human body.  Like Mary, Jesus will house God’s spirit opening up a vision of how God seeks to dwell in all humanity, all human flesh.  As Paul will say again and again, you are the temple of God.

The interaction between Gabriel and Mary is the story of the always incarnating God who comes not overpowering us, not as a king or warrior who would force us or coerce us, but rather knocking on the doors of our hearts—seeking our permission to come and be born in us and dwell with us as a child, or an idea, or a vision, whose dependent on our love and care to live and thrive and come into fullness.  May we like Mary have the courage to let the Incarnation happen in and through us.

The revelation of God in human bodies—God in impermanent human flesh—turned the heavens upside down.  It is a vision so much more powerful and beautiful than all the wealth of every empire combined.  It bestows every human being and creation itself with a heavenly dignity that we are still trying to figure out how to honor through things like human rights and popular democracy and the environmental movement.  It also means that those of us who have experienced God in and through loved ones who have died, or who we are now separated from, can understand why we are so bereft.  At the same time it encourages us to know that the goodness we have known through them is at the heart of everything, is the beginning and the end.  For two thousand years this insight has given sight to the blind and had the power to calm the storms of our hearts, and given us the courage to go where angels dare not go.

May we open ourselves to this vision of heaven and earth united in human flesh that it may live in us and through us.  For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.

“Reflections on the Baptism of Elyse Gloria Priest” – The Rev. Joe Summers, 12/17/17

“Reflections on the Baptism of Elyse Gloria Priest” given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December 17th, 2017. (Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent (B):  Isaiah 61:1-4 & 8-11, Psalm 126, I Thessalonians 5:16-24, The Magnificat, and John 1:6-8 & 19-28).

O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, to whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment.  Amen.                       –St Augustine.

Today we are celebrating the Holy Baptism of Elyse Gloria Priest, daughter of Megan Elyse Williams  and  Matthew William Priest,  so she is the  sermon, she is the good news, the grace, that we are being called to open ourselves so that our hearts and minds might be transformed.  I do, however, want to talk about some of the connections between our Baptism of Elyse and Advent.

Advent is about preparing a way for God in our world.  Through her baptism we are seeking to prepare a way for Elyse and the divine light in her.

In his baptism Jesus heard the heavens proclaim him God’s beloved, One with whom God was well pleased.  Today we proclaim Elyse as pleasing to God and God’s beloved, now and forever.

We pray that, knowing herself as God’s beloved, as of infinite worth, will help strengthen Elyse to reject the false selves, those idols we are tempted to try to be in order to be considered worthy in the eyes of others.

Baptism is about claiming our common humanity as children of God, children of the Most High, children of the king of king’s and inheritors of God’s Kingdom.  As we heard Mark proclaim last week, for the Kingdom of God to grow on earth requires a social leveling so that all can know their divine worth.   Through baptism we reject the powers that would tempt us to view ourselves as superior or inferior to others.

The whole world in which some are considered worthy of being recognized as human and others are not, was understood by the early church to be the work of the devil.  In the early church when people denounced the devil and all his works, as part of the baptismal service, they would turn to the west and spit.  At this point Elyse may only be able to drool, but we hope that the day will come which she has that kind of bold spirit that’s able to face the devil and spit.

As we hear in Isaiah today, that bold Spirit is God’s spirit.  It is the spirit that seeks to bring good news to the oppressed, liberty to captives, release to prisoners and to heal the sick and broken hearted.  It is this Spirit that in baptism we ask to guide us and lead us that we may build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations that we see everywhere in our world.

It is this Spirit that is the garment of salvation. It gives us “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” because a faint spirit is not going to turn this world around and simply going around feeling bad is not going to break the cycle of loss and recrimination and shame that holds the peoples of our world captive.

Advent is a season in which we hear that new realities don’t come from nowhere, we have to prepare for them, we have to work for them.

Mary is the image of the power of this kind of work and preparation for the new to be born.  We just sang her song of power and praise that we call “The Magnificat” because Mary begins her song by saying “My soul glorifies the Lord, my soul magnifies the Lord.”  Hearing that proclamation we know it was not an accident that Jesus, despite being born out of wedlock of a poor family and a teenage mother, in a nation under bondage to the Roman empire, should grow up to know God’s spirit living and speaking and acting in and through him.

For Jesus, John’s call to turn away from sins was not enough, we needed to turn towards our belovedness in God.   But John the Baptist is also an image of the power of this kind of work and preparation.  John seems to have been an absolutely ferocious man, willing to stand up to empire knowing what the cost would be.  Yet at the same time we see this tender humility in him: “I am not the One.  I’m just here to bear witness to the light, to prepare the way of the Lord.”

That’s part of what baptism is all about, God coming to us in the form Elyse, our committing ourselves to honoring Elyse as an expression of what is infinitely precious. Matt and Megan and Jenna and Daniel and all of us committing ourselves, to doing all in our power, to honor God in her, that she might grow into the fullness of her unique humanity, even here, even now, in the midst of this society and world which so clearly devalues simply being human, but particularly female humanity, particularly people who are poor, disabled, or different in terms of their race, class, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Children are born in the image of our wild God “I am who I am, I will be who I will be.” We never want Elyse’s wild spirit to be tamed even though, as parents, family, friends, the church or society, it may cause us a lot of grief or trouble at different stages of her life.  We’re saying we don’t want Elyse conform to how things are, rather–the world and we must change–for her to be who she was created to be.  The new creation begins with honoring each for the unique in all creation miracle that they are.

So let us this da y pledge our lives to honoring Elyse and all the children of our world.  Let us also pledge to honoring ourselves and who we are, as children of the Most High, that through God’s spirit we might overthrow the reign of oppression, injustice and neglect and help usher in, what Isaiah today calls the day of the Lord, the time when justice and peace and love reign here on earth.

For it we are willing God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

“A Holy Ghost Building;” Reflections on the Life of Claude Johnson 11/18/17

“A Holy Ghost Building;” Reflections on the Life of Claude Johnson given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 18, 2017.  (Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:4-9, Matthew 5:1-12)
 
“This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” 
 
To begin our remembrances of Claude Johnson today I’ve asked Sam Clark to sing “I’m working on a building,” as this week I found it speaking to me of Claude.
 
I’m Working on A Building
I’m working on a building, a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, for my Lord
I’m working on a building, a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, yeah for my Lord
            If I was a liar I tell you what I’d do
            I would quit my lying and work on that building too
Working on a building, it’s a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, yeah for my Lord
            If I was a singer I tell you what I’d do
            I would keep on singing and work on that building too
For my Lord, for my Lord
 
Claude Johnson was a builder.  You can look around this chapel and see some of the many things Claude built.  One Christmas Elginne had to wrap 80 different wooden Christmas ornaments and toys that Claude had made for children and families in this church and for his extended family.  Like David Byrd’s creations they were always creative and imaginative like these two hands with clearly different skin colors holding each other in prayer, in solidarity, or this clock Claude gave me. You may not be able to read it, but at the bottom it says, “Free at last,” followed by a questions mark.  The chains remind you of the broken chains of slavery.  The train engine reminds you of the Underground Railroad, but also trains as the symbol of progress.  Claude loved his trains. But then the fact that you have to ask the question of whether we’re free at last definitely lets you know we’re clearly not there yet.   There’s the cross Claude made when we had services in different places so it needed to be easy to pack up.  You can see “Incarnation” carved in the wood.  I don’t know how he did that.  These beautiful candlesticks.  Keep an eye out for others things around the chapel and the social hall to get a sense of just how creative and industrious Claude was.  And these beautiful creations were only the smallest part of the kind of building Claude did.
 
Claude was a mechanical engineer. He worked in the aerospace division at Bendix, one of the largest engineering firms in our country, working on airports around the world.   After he retired from Bendix he went to work at the county jail where he kept it running in all sorts of ways and found excuses to reach out to those who were incarcerated. Years later, going around with Claude, several times, we ran into men who told us how grateful they were to Claude for the way he had befriended them while they were in jail.   After he retired from the county jail, Claude went to work for Neighborhood Senior Services, which he said was his favorite job, helping people so they could continue to live in their homes. 
 
But Claude didn’t just work on building objects and buildings; he also was part of a generation that helped build a culture that emphasized building character.
 
Claude grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, during the time of legal segregation.  For Claude this meant living in two worlds at the same time:  the world of the African-American community, which was all about nurturing and the pursuit of excellence and helping people realize their fundamental dignity and worth and learning to live out of that sense of worth, and a broader society  that was trying to demean you, limit you, deny you, because of the color of your skin.
 
Claude worked at a white country club in Bluefield.  One day, in the midst of a dinner at the club, his girlfriend’s father was shot and killed by a drunk white judge who felt insulted by the way he was served.  Though it was done in front of many witnesses, the judge was never charged with any crime.  But Bluefield was also the place where in addition to his own wonderful family, his parents, his older brother Pete and sister Letitia,  Claude also had an adopted aunt and uncle.  This uncle taught him everything about working on cars—something Claude loved to do the rest of his life.  His adopted aunt ran a small boarding house where the Black musicians who came through Bluefield would stay because they couldn’t stay in the white hotel. His aunt played the piano and after those musicians played at the hotel they would go back to her place and play late into the night, and so Claude got to hear and meet people like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and some of the other greatest singers, musicians, and composers of our time, or any time.
 
These two powerful and contradictory currents—growing up in world of violent and humiliating oppression and yet also being nurtured by a community that encouraged you to become the best self you could be, a kind of Holy Ghost building—shaped Claude and his generation.
 
When you devote yourself to an idea, it ceases to be just an idea. It becomes a value.   Generational historians call Claude’s generation the committed generation, for it was this generation whose commitment saw us through the dismantling of legal segregation.  But to me Claude also clearly embodied the values of the generation before him: the G.I. (general infantry) generation, the generation whose core value was duty, doing your duty. That generation became known as a generation willing to be anonymous, to put their own interests aside for the sake of the common good.   It was the generation that not only defeated fascism, but which built up everything from vibrant public schools to healthy cities, to the church as we’ve known it over the last one hundred years.  In Claude that commitment to doing your duty and the pursuit of excellence were so clearly interconnected.
 
I grew up a baby boomer, a generation whose core value was self-expression.  I grew up feeling this focus on doing your duty was a kind of trap, a way of losing yourself in organizations and putting up with boring meetings, a way of getting trapped into being unimaginative or going along with things you shouldn’t go along with, or building institutions just for the sake of building them. Claude taught me differently. In Claude I got to discover the positive side of duty: this ability to show up, in season or out of season, to do whatever needs to be done, regardless of how you’re feeling.    In contrast, my generation’s focus on self-expression seems to have left people enslaved to themselves, only able to do what they want to do, unable to do what they don’t want to do, and our society has paid a terrible price for this in terms of the decline of our cities and public schools and the retreat into private spaces of happiness at the expense of the public square and the public good.
 
In contrast, through Claude I got to see how a sense of duty can become a means of transcending who you are, not leaving behind what you want, but not being tyrannized by your more immediate needs or desires.  Claude always had a list of what he was needing to do—generally what he was needing to do for others, and he simply walked through his life doing them.
 
I remember coming to the church one night and discovering that our old furnace room was filled with about eight inches of water. It was clear our furnace would soon be under water and break if we didn’t do something quickly.  It was about nine p.m. when I called
Claude and explained what was happening.  He immediately came out and was able to get the sump pump working again with no fuss, no drama, no saying this is past my bedtime and I need to get up early in the morning for work. I also appreciated the fact that working in the dark with rising water amidst electrical outlets—he also kept us from getting electrocuted. 
 
In terms of this church, Claude showed up again and again and again to do whatever needed to be done: to maintain this building or fix something, to keep the church’s financial records, to help individuals in the congregation in whatever way they were needing help.
 
It was also while going around doing this work with him that I got to experience how the legacy of segregation still lives in our community.  I got to see the kinds of humiliations and injustices Claude was subjected to as we went to purchase some kind of building supplies and clerks would want to talk to me, who knows nothing about anything building related, rather then Claude, who had approached them in the first place and knew everything about everything.  I also saw how the police would pull Claude over while I almost never got pulled over, even though he was so clearly driving a better car and was a more careful driver and was more respectable than I am in every way.  If you didn’t have a sense of higher purpose in your life these kinds of indignities could just poison you and make you into a hateful person. When you have a higher purpose, it might still make you angry, but that anger becomes seeds of fire that leave you ready to do whatever you can to change things when you have the opportunity to do so.
 
Now it’s important to say that this sense of duty was not some kind of selfless thing. Claude’s sense of duty was not just about others; part of his sense of duty was about honoring his own dignity and worth and that of his family and loved ones.  So, for example, Claude found a way to break through the color line, the housing segregation that existed in Ann Arbor through the early 1960’s, keeping Black people living in two small sections of the city. Because no realtor would sell him any property outside that area, Claude paid a builder to buy a piece of land, build a house, and then sell it to him.  Thus the house on Independence that Elginne still lives in is a living testimony to the dismantling of segregation here in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, moving into that area was only part of the challenges of segregation as Claude’s children, particularly Terri, would pay a high price as she strove to protect Susan and Tamara from the ugliness and bullying they encountered for being people of color living in that area.
 
Claude’s sense of duty and commitment to excellence was also embodied in his commitment to being a good man, a gentle man, and a good father.   Sometimes his expectations may have gotten a little out of hand as when he returned from Korea telling Elginne about how women in Korea could give birth in the morning and be back working in the fields that afternoon, but Elginne straightened him out.  🙂  
 
 Claude and Elginne raised their children in the 1960’s, a time when our consumerist culture was encouraging men to go and make as much money as possible as the key to happiness.  Claude didn’t buy into that foolishness.  Other than the period when in addition to working at Bendix he worked at a gas station to save up money for the house on Independence, Claude in general never worked overtime.  He was always home by 5:30 p.m. to be with Elginne and his kids.  The ethic of self-love and self-care and commitment to excellence that grew up and was nurtured as resistance to Jim Crow is so reflected in Terry and Tamera and Susan and their children.
 
It was Claude and Elginne’s commitment to others, to gospel values that brought them to this congregation.  Elginne read in The Ann Arbor News about all the trouble the church and the community were giving the Rev. Jim Lewis for trying to open up the church to the hungry and the homeless and speaking up for different oppressed groups, so when she heard he had come to his new congregation, she and Claude came here.  On a photo board in the social hall you can see pictures of them at age 53 participating in the “Society and Prisons” Lenten program that launched our work with the criminal justice system. 
 
Over the years Claude and Elginne became among the key pillars of this church, not just doing what needed to be done, but opening their lives and hearts to so many of us and taking us in not only as friends but as family.  Claude and Elginne’s love and affection has been one of the most life-sustaining and life-enhancing aspects of my life over my thirty years here at Incarnation. Elginne has always kept me grounded in love and humor, affectionately calling me “the boy” or “my boy”—sometimes, I suspect, depending on how I was behaving.  When my daughter Kate called Claude to say a final goodbye and was saying how much it meant to her to have Claude as a beloved grandfather—Claude’s responded, “Yes. Isn’t that a surprising and wonderful thing.” That meant the world to her.  There are so many here that have been adopted into this amazing family.
 
“There is a river that makes glad the city of God.  God is in the midst of her and she will not be overthrown.”  Through Claude and Elginne so many of us have come to know the glad river.  In the midst of a sick and corrupting culture, they built on the rock of such gospel values as honesty and truthfulness, concern for others and excellence, humility and hard work, grace and humor—rather than the shifting sands of materialism, or get-aheadism, or egotism. They have left us with that legacy Paul speaks of in Philippians as the kind of excellence and beauty that can keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love and peace of Christ. I’m not exaggerating—this is true.
 
We had a member of the congregation, John Norton, who suffered from schizophrenia yet found many ways to reach out to others and contribute to the broader world, including writing poetry. One of his poems was called “The Be—Attitudes”. It was a call to become the blessed held up in the beatitudes:
            *Be one of the humble and poor in spirit so you can help build the inclusive reign of heaven here on earth.
            *Be one of those who mourn so you can comfort others.
            *Be one of those who hunger and thirst for justice so you can become an ambassador for justice.
            *Be one of the merciful so that others can know the power of compassion.
            *Be one of the pure in heart so you can see God, even here, even now, in this world.
            *Be a peacemaker so that you can help others know peace as their divine heritage.          
            *Be one of the persecuted—knowing that persecution is the price we pay for real change.
 
Claude lived these be-attitudes.  Through him we have been blessed to know what it means to live as a child of the Most High. And if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

The Sacrament of Advent – Dec. 3 2017 Reflections

“The Sacrament of Advent” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December  3rd, 2017. (Readings Advent 1B: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7,16-18, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 12:24-37)

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

We are living in a very different country than we were living in one week ago.  This country has had some very dark hours, but I think that sooner than later we are going to recognize that the tax reformation the Senate passed on Friday was one of them.  A congress that was unwilling to help poor and working and middle class people who were losing their homes in the midst of the mortgage crises, because it was too expensive, has now proved to be willing to spend twice that amount to make the wealthy wealthier and to borrow money to do that.  The evidence suggests that for the foreseeable future every program that helps poor and working people will be opposed or cut because, they will claim, we cannot afford to go further into debt. The Bible is very clear on its judgment of those who make the wealthy wealthier at the expense of the poor and nations that allows this to happen.  What happened this past week is world changing, but I fear that today we will get caught up in reacting to what’s happened, rather then focusing on how we need to change, individually and collectively, if we are going to reverse this evil, if we are going to be able to create the kind of country we want to live in.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

I want to talk for a moment about the idea of being counter-intuitive, which is when you think or act in a way that is opposite of your instincts. In most of our lives we rely on our instincts to see us through things so this idea of being counter-intuitive is itself very counter-intuitive.

My favorite example of being counter-intuitive is those signs on beaches that tell you if you get caught in a rip-tide you shouldn’t try to swim against the current, but rather relax and let it carry you where it wants to carry you until you can somehow get to the edge and beyond it.  That all sounds great until you get caught in one and realize you are being carried out into the ocean where you are certain you will drown and every fiber of your being tells you to do all you can to resist it.  The only problem with that is if you go along with your instincts–you are more likely to drown.  If you can’t tell, I’m talking from personal experience here.

Another one, I’ve also experienced, is that if you have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) if leaves you wanting to do everything you can to avoid anything that might stimulate your fears.  It’s like you want to surround yourself with nice white fluffy clouds and so people with PTSD often retreat behind thick walls into private gardens and surround themselves with soft lights and quite music.  Often out of concern your friends will encourage you to do this. The only problem is that retreating behind those walls ensures that you’ll remain controlled by your PTSD. The only way to get better is not to try to avoid what might stimulate it.  That is so counter-intuitive.

Another favorite one is that if you are anxious about doing something your mind tells you just to avoid thinking about it and you’ll feel better, but procrastination ultimately makes anxiety so much much worse.  It took me a long time to learn that one.

I’m saying all this because on some fundamental level the practices of Advent are very counter-intuitive.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the church year, and on it we find our scriptures today are filled with metaphors about light and darkness.   As warm blooded creatures we tend to want to avoid the cold. As social creatures we often avoid being alone.  As creatures who can’t see in the dark–we tend to like the light.  But advent calls us to open ourselves to the cold and the darkness and the silence of this time of the year, to let it be for us a kind of sacrament, a material means of grace, so that we can be transformed by hope.  That’s very counter-intuitive.

Advent begins with a call out into the wilderness.  The wilderness is an area that hasn’t been completely domesticated. We tend to like to live our lives feeling in control of things, but the definition of the wilderness is an area in which things haven’t been brought under our control, an area where we are confronted with the unknown.   Advent says, if we wish to live in reality, if we wish for the divine to lead us and guide us, we need to be willing to recognize that often our light is really a form of darkness and we will only discover the true light if we are willing to enter into the darkness of not knowing, if we are willing to listen for what we’ve not been hearing, if we are willing to at least temporarily be unable to see so that we can begin to see what we are not seeing. We’re only able to discover what we don’t know by moving beyond what we think we know.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

Isaiah today speaks of feeling cut off from God’s presence.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire cause water to boil…so that the nations might tremble at your presence.”    Isaiah goes on “We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth….for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.”

The Hebrew faith tells us that what most cuts us off from knowing God’s presence is idolatry: the attempt to transform the divine into a thing, the attempt to takes what’s living and fluid and mysterious and make it into something that is fixed and static and therefore controllable.

Idolatry is rooted in our anxious grasping hearts which want to hold onto and control whatever is most precious to us so we constantly have to struggle with having an unhealthy attachment to whatever that is: our partners, our children, feeling good,  feeling in control, money, sex, our ideas, our health, God.

In our hearts we are to maintain the holy of holies, an empty space in which we can encounter the divine, the living, but we are constantly tempted to fill that empty space with idols, things, so that we don’t have to experience the emptiness and the silence. Advent tells us we can only know the divine presence once again when we are willing to empty our hearts of those things and empty ourselves.

Advent speaks of a new beginning that begins with visions of the end. In our gospel today we hear of what would feel like the end of the world: the sun darkened, stars falling from the heavens, heaven and earth shaken. Often, the new beginning we are needing can only happen when we confront the end. Often, for us as individuals or for us collectively, change only happens when it is the last possible alternative.

Advent encourages us not to be afraid of visions of the end. Most of the time we try to avoid being pessimistic or seeing things in a negative light, but in advent we are given permission to face the darkness: to see where we really are in all its negative light, to recognize where certain kind of action and thinking and feelings are leading us, to let ourselves experience the fruit of how we’ve been thinking or acting has been effecting ourselves and others, and to let this grief empower us to let go and turn away from what has led us to a place of desolation.

Sometimes Advent can be about our need for a kind of complete turning, a recognition of some fundamental way in which we need to turn or die, individually or collectively.  What worked for us at one point in our lives, may now be killing us or threatening to kill us.  What may have worked for us collectively, at one point in our nations history, may now destroy us.  If you are awake, it’s pretty hard not to feel that this nation and humanity generally are needing a fundamental turning if we are going to have any kind of good future or even to survive. Advent gives us permission to face that reality, without panic, praying and asking God to meet us here, to make a way where all we can see is no way.

But even when our lives seem to be going well, we need this annual journey into the darkness to be reconnect to the world, to reconnect with reality, to reconnect with ourselves, to reconnect with God.  As symbol making creatures we create symbols to navigate and respond to our lives and world.  We encounter someone or something and we take a kind of mental photograph and label it, as part of the way to make some sense of them.  But the problem is that those mental photographs, that initially might help us connect to that person, or that reality, can over time disconnect us from them as we hold onto our mental snapshots and stop paying attention to how that person or reality is living and changing.

Thus marriage counselors tells us that couples who are married a long time often, over time, know less and less about each other, because twenty years ago you said you felt or thought such and such and I’m stilling holding onto that idea when the reality is you haven’t thought or felt that way for a long long time.   And what happens to us individually also happens to us collectively. We develop an idea or a story about something and don’t see how that idea or that story is now keeping us from seeing our reality, much less respond to it.  We need to be particularly aware of how this happens with our religions faith.  Religion is meant to bind us to reality, but if we have an unhealthy attachment to our faith, it can disconnect us from reality.

When that happens, our light becomes the darkness as what we think we know keeps us from really knowing much of anything.  The tools which were a means of helping us know and respond to ourselves and others and our world have become barriers to knowing and responding.  At its worst, you find some people who hold so hard onto their ideas that when they look out all they can see, all they encounter, seems to confirm their perceptions, because they can  no longer see anything but their own ideas.  The result of being trapped in this delusion is that they can go through life feeling that they are almost never wrong, but in their wake you see a trail of wreckage.  That’s what we hearing in the testimony of all these men who only now are waking up to the harm they did to others.  That’s what I think we’ll soon see in the wreckage this new tax plan will cause, as it results in suffering for millions.   Though the premises of this plan are based on ideas that have been thoroughly disproven, people instead chose to hold onto their ideas of what is helpful over that evidence.  But as much as we may want to project this kind of wreck less foolishness onto others, Advent tells us it’s something we must all guard against.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

Advent is an invitation back to unknowing, back to what the Buddhists call “beginners mind”, the willingness to see and experience things anew, as if we were seeing them for the first time.

Advent is an affirmation of the power of humility. When we are in our right minds it’s clear that there is so much we don’t know and yet, that’s okay, we don’t have to run or hide from what we don’t know.   We can acknowledge our ignorance.  Real curiosity is born in that space in which we realize there is something we need or want to know that we don’t know.  The darkness we fear is not our real enemy–rather it’s brimming with an invisible light that would lead us and guide us if we can loosen our deadly grip on our need to be in control by claiming to know what we don’t know.

In this way, Advent becomes a yearly invitation, to return to reality, to return to ourselves, to return to our lives and world as they are, to have the courage to see and name–where we are now, where we are starting from, and to invite the divine to meet us here, not where we wish we were because that’s a fantasy and the living God dwells in reality, and can only meet us in reality, or not at all.

Our society does all it can to block out the growing silence, coldness, and darkness of the natural world at this time of the year.  Strikingly, historians tell us we’ve been doing this for thousands of years.  In the ancient world, at this time of the year, you also had the same frenzied consumption and almost the same proportion of goods being bought and sold as we have today. Rather than fleeing the darkness, the silence and the cold through consumption, Advent calls us to be open to it.

We are like seeds that need the dark cold earth in order to germinate.  Though we think that the darkness is an enemy that we must fight, the advent story tells us there is an invisible light–reaching out to us through the darkness and that light is our hope and the hope of the world.  Advent tells us that beyond all the noise there is a silent song which if we can hear it will bring us joy and joy to the world.  Advent tells us that in the cold there is to be found a divine warmth that no amount of gaiety and parities can come close to.

So let us embrace the sacrament of advent, the sacrament of seeing in this season of the year a grace that is calling us, wanting to encourage us, wanting us to lay down the burden of denial and the isolation it brings, wanting to comfort us, wanting to empower us, wanting to help us become creative again–human again, in our thinking and responses to our lives and the world, if we will but turn and be open to it.

For if we are willing god is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

p.s. While we need to address our collective reality, I’m sensing that today it would be helpful for us to start with our personal reality.  So I’d like to pose the question of where you find yourself, at the beginning of this new beginning that we call advent.  Where are you?  What is the darkness or unknown that you are confronting?  What do you sense you are being called to turn away from, or to turn towards?