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On Aug. 27, 2017, Rev. Joe Summers' reflections drew upon the power and prophecy in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. At Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.

Prophecy, the Prophetic Community and Harry Potter

Reflections presented by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Sunday, August 27th, 2017. (Readings for the 12thSunday after Pentecost: 16:A: Isaiah 51:16, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20)

(At the beginning of the reflection time Sam Clark sang and played: “All Along the Watch Tower,”by Bob Dylan, as adapted by Jimi Hendrix. Below are the words).

“There must be some kind of way outta here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much During his Visitor's Day sermon on Aug. 27, 2017, Rev. Joe Summers began with the Jimi Hendrix version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." At Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.confusion; I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.

“No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke.
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But, you and I, we’ve been through that and this is not our fate,
so let us not talk falsely now. The hour’s getting late.”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view,
while all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl, all along the watchtower, all along the watchtower.

Prophecy:
In Isaiah 21: 6-7 we hear: “For thus the Lord said to me: Go, post a lookout, let him announce what he sees. When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, riders on donkeys, riders on camels, let him listen diligently, very diligently.”

Who’s standing on the watchtower? Who’s sounding the warning? Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is just such a prophetic warning. Everyone seems to be drinking the Jokester’s wine, the wine of foolishness. From business leaders to working people, everyone has forgotten what life is really worth. It is time to stop talking falsely, for the hour is getting late. Jimi Hendrix’s haunting guitar solo lets us know what’s at stake: war, isolation, desolation.

Many confuse prophecy with predicting the future. Prophecy is not some kind of magic that allows you to predict the future; it is about revealing where things are and where things are headed unless there is change. It’s about helping people understand causes and consequences. Jesus compares it to reading the weather: you read the skies to know what kind of weather is coming, so why can’t you read the times? Why can’t you see what is happening in our world and what is going to happen as a result?

Prophecy is about speaking the God word, the Living word, the word that reconnects us to reality and to ultimate reality. It enables us to speak to our reality and to transform it. We see, know, and experience the world through our words so when our words become dead, when they become disconnected from reality, we become unable to know the reality of our lives and world, we become unable to speak to our condition. That’s why we’re so dependent on the prophets and prophecy because the heart of prophecy is living words: words that are alive, vibrant, transformative.  That’s why prophecy has so often been spoken in the form of poetry or sung to music. When you read the Hebrew prophets more than 2,000 years later, they still sing out with original, uncompromised language and vision.

In today’s gospel we hear Jesus challenge his disciples. “But who do you say I am?” Every generation is challenged with discovering who “I AM” is for them. Every generation of Christians needs to define who Jesus is for them. If the gates of hell are not going to prevail against us, then we must define the nature of the evil we are facing in our time and how it can be overcome.

On Aug. 27, 2017, Rev. Joe Summers' reflections drew upon the power and prophecy in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. At Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.Today I want to talk about the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling as prophecy, as an attempt to speak a new living word, as an attempt to clear the junk out of our eyes and hearts and minds so we can see and feel and think again, so that we can have a new understanding of the world we are living in and what we must be about if we are going to save our world and our humanity and live good lives—that is lives lived as soul-filled free people, true, faithful, and loving, and not as slaves to fear, delusion, cowardice, ego, and hatred.

After having been rejected by eight publishers, Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone was first published just over twenty years ago on June 26, 1997. The last volume of this seven-volume series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, was published ten years later in 2007, ten years ago this summer. To give you a sense of the impact of this series, that volume sold eleven million copies within twenty-four hours of its release in the United States. As of May 2013, this series had already sold more than 500 million copies, making it the best-selling book series of all time. (1) It has already been translated into seventy-three languages. I suspect that for a generation of young people it may well prove to have the kind of lasting impact that the Beatles had on my generation, and I say that as someone who believes the Beatles played an incredibly important role in helping to open up the consciousness of a generation.

Why do I speak of the Harry Potter series in terms of prophecy?

First, we should be clear.J. K. Rowling is speaking to us through writing about a kind of parallel universe, a world which looks a lot like ours, but alongside of which is a world where there are wizards and witches, goblins and ghosts, werewolves and giants, mermaids and mermen, and all sorts of other wild fantastic creatures. Some of these creatures we know through ancient mythology and literature and some J. K. Rowling invented, such as the dementors, creatures who inspire fear in people because they feed on our fears and can suck your soul right out of you.

When the series begins, our protagonist, Harry Potter, knows almost nothing of this other world because he’s been brought up cut off from and lied to about the nature of his world and his past. It is only on Harry’s 11th birthday that the delusional materialist world of suburbia that he’s been taught to believe in comes crashing down when he learns he is really a wizard, that his parents didn’t die in a car crash but were killed by an evil wizard, and that he is to attend Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Each volume represents another year of Harry’s life until the last volume, when he decides that after his 17th birthday he will not to go back to Hogwarts so he can focus on trying to kill the evil wizard who is on the verge of ruling our world.

In raising our children, baby boomers have tended to do all we could to protect them from the kinds of risks that so many of us willingly pursued when we were young. To try to ensure that our children got the best education possible many of us sent our kids to private schools, contributing to the virtual collapse of public schools in many parts of the country. To see that our children advanced in every way possible and to protect them from the dangers of the world, we filled our kids’ days and nights with all kinds of classes and activities to the point that it is rare to find communities with the sense of neighborhood that many of us grew up with. All kinds of specialized activities meant to help you develop yourself (and perhaps your marketability) have contributed to the decline of what Peter Linebaugh has called the commons, those public spaces and forums in which all are welcomed and profit.

But if parents of my generation have seemed to have wanted to protect our children from all kinds of harm and evil, J. K. Rowling has revealed their desire to know the world as it is, as the Harry Potter series is a descent into the excitement and freedom of a world not controlled by adults, but also of the heartbreak, horror, and death we encounter in our world.

Writing about a parallel world, J. K. Rowling helps us to see and experience our world and our lives in a new way.

It is a world in which there is a battle going on between good and evil. Evil is the attempt to dominate, control, and exploit others. Yet the institutions and bureaucracies of Harry’s world are largely oblivious to this war, instead thinking that all that needs to be done is to develop good standards and guidelines and that if everyone follows the rules everything will run smoothly. Sound familiar? When those in power do come to realize the world is being threatened with real evil, their response is to attempt to control and dominate others in ways that only makes things worse.

This whole world of evil and domination is significantly defined by racism—one race or species trying to dominate and control and exploit the others. Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard, is all about blood purity, wizards who have not intermarried with muggles (humans without magical powers). The history of this world has been defined by the conflicts of non-magical humans versus wizards versus all these other kinds of creatures. One of the reasons that Voldemort is able to gain the allegiance of various types of creatures that he despises is that many of these creatures have been so badly treated by society in the past that they wrongly believe they will do better allying with him, and thus they rally around him and his worship of pure and brutal power.

Imagination

In a Harvard Commencement speech, which J. K. Rowling published under the title Very Good Lives, she speaks of how working for Amnesty International in her early 20’s immersed her in the world of good and evil. There she read many, many “handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials, executions, kidnappings, and rapes.” She met those whose torture had left them permanently mentally ill. She says that one day she heard a “terrible scream of pain and horror such as I never heard before. It was the cry of a young man upon learning the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.”(2)

She says: “Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read. And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.”

She goes on to say:

Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Working at Amnesty International was part of what taught Rowling “the importance of imagination,” and here she is speaking of imagination not simply as “the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation.” But even more importantly in “its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Rowling goes on to say that those who don’t exercise this capacity “enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”

Still, she says, many “prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.”

Strikingly, she concludes, “I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.”(3)

So this Harry Potter stuff is not just the stuff of fantasy. It’s our lives, our world, written in fantasy. The power of its imagery came back to me again and again over these past two weeks.

Determined not to be ruled by death, Lord Voldemort’s followers are known as death-eaters. It is an evocative title. When the Dark Lord murders someone, his followers put his sign in the sky as a way to terrify their enemies and rally the death-eaters. Those images spoke to me when I recently saw the footage of hundreds of people chanting hateful slogans and marching with torches during the night, bearing swastikas and symbols of the KKK, and then learned of the murder of Heather Heyer. I don’t think we have any clearer symbols of evil than the swastika and the letters KKK. Those images and the president’s response to them left me imagining that the Dark Lord has indeed arisen over our county—calling together other hate-eaters — and the events since then have seemed to bear this out.

The march on Charlottesville happened on Saturday. The Monday before that, the home of Nikki Joly and Chris Moore in Jackson, Michigan, was burned down, killing their five pets and destroying all their belongings. This was done apparently in retaliation for their leading their city to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance this past April, and for their leading Jackson’s first Pride celebration two days earlier.

About this Pride celebration, the Jackson Area Landlord Association’s President, Robert Tulloch, sent an e-mail warning to the members of the city council saying: “I saw something on a site about marching to Blackman Park and raising a flag? I hope they are not planning to raise a gay flag. That is an in-your-face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response. This IS the queer agenda.”

Here in Ann Arbor, just in this past week, the Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat, the Ann Arbor skateboard park and the track at Concordia Lutheran College were covered with racist and Nazi graffiti, and the Common Language (LGBT) bookstore was vandalized. Clearly, some people are hearing and responding to the call to hatred.

So—we don’t have to look too far to find the kinds of struggles between good and evil that Harry Potter is all about, but part of the power of Harry Potter is that is not simplistic, it is not dualistic. It challenges us to know the stories of how people got where they are, because only then will we have any hope of struggling with them effectively. Though our country’s problems are far greater than those who are currently rallying around the KKK or Nazi flag, we must understand how low-income whites continue to be demonized in ways that surely foster hatred for liberal society.

It was only a month ago that the Ann Arbor News, and I suspect its chain of newspapers throughout Michigan, carried an infotainment article entitled “The Top Ten Most White Trash Cities in Michigan.”  Meant to be funny, it names the top ten places in Michigan with “the most drug-addicted, violent, welfare-receiving white populations.” Its jokes reek of contempt. About Jackson it says: “If you live here there is a good chance you’re makin’ meth.” About Bay City: “when it comes to fighting over that week’s favorite meth slut, you better believe it will be handled bare knuckle to bare knuckle in your trailer’s front yard. Please, please, watch out for the car on cinder blocks and the crapper, and the broken-down mower.” Or Coldwater: “where they fight over what beer is better (Busch or Natural Light) and over who has more teeth.”

That contempt for poor and working people in terms of how they dress, look, live, and their morals is the kind of contempt that will leave people blindly hating others—and yet there still seems little consciousness of this kind of classism in liberal society.

The Inner and the Outer

In her commencement speech, Rowling quotes Plutarch: “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Part of the power of Harry Potter is that it upholds a vision of how what we do inwardly connects to what we can do and achieve in the world. Thus Harry Potter’s overcoming Lord Voldemort and his army is not just about fighting; it is about values and it is about learning to be a good human being. Harry will ultimately be able to conquer Voldemort, not because of magical powers, but because he has been loved and he has learned to love.

And Harry’s love is not just sentiment; he pursues it with the kind of discipline so many baby-boomers resisted—learning how to work really hard, learning to be excellent at things, learning to really care for others, learning to be the best self he can be. For a generation whose parents did everything possible for them, Harry Potter is the image of the opposite of being spoiled. He knows the humility that is born of failure. (4)Part of the result of his humility and caring for others is that Harry learns not to value a gift, or a talent, or power for its own sake or because he possesses it, but only for what it can do for others. Ultimately, this means that while Lord Voldemort has spent his life trying to figure out how never to die, Harry Potter learns how to die, to give up his life so that others can live.

The Prophetic Community

You have perhaps heard the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” According to her daughter Mary Bateson, this actually defined how her mother understood human evolution to happen. That is, each advance in human evolution happens when an individual comes up with a new idea about how to do something, and then a small group begins to practice that new idea, and then over time that idea spreads to others.This means that our evolution as a species depends on small communities of people committed to learning from each other and to learning to live new ideas.

As examples, she points to the community that gathered around Jesus and the community that sparked the American Revolution. In this way, new ideas are dependent on prophetic communities to take root. We see the power of such a community in Harry’s motley, radically diverse community that is not only opposed to the Lord Voldemort and his followers but also rejects the hierarchy of worth that has defined the life and culture of so much of the wizarding community and embraces a vision of a society in which all are valued. Ultimately, that vision of inclusion and their practice of honoring others will have everything to do with why they are ultimately successful in overcoming the evil that is on the verge of destroying their world.

But this new community is not just about core values such as equality, fairness, justice, compassion; at the heart of this new community is also a vision of the mysterious nature of friendship. The series is all about the transformative effect of friendship; how it is the heart of community, how vital is it to having a good life, how central it is to becoming a good human being.(5)

While telling a story about the struggle between good and evil and about how those who wish to be moral agents need to learn to embrace who they are, with all their radical imperfections, and yet still strive to be their best selves, part of the power of this series is that through it Rowling also presents a kind of guide for the soul as she allows her readers to reflect on the whole experience of being human, its joys and sorrows, its incredible pleasures and the kind of pain that leaves you wanting not to be human, how confusing it is to come of age and live in a world where so much of what is outside of you and within you is unknown and changing, and how difficult it is to know what’s important and what is not, what is real and what is a delusion.

I read Moby Dick when I was twelve years old because it was described as, “a fun-filled adventure story for boys.” Reading it that way, I totally missed Melville’s profound meditation on the insanity of racism and where it was leading our country. My hope is that we will wake up to the vision J. K. Rowling has put before us, for she seems to have been able to imagine the world we are now living in, a world where cynicism, fear, and despair are leading people to turn back to worshipping the strong and powerful, the bullies, as their best hope of survival, a world where people are encouraged to turn their backs on and even despise the weak and vulnerable, including their own humanity, a world where the lack of imagination keeps us from seeing and knowing how much we have in common despite and across all our profound differences. As Dumbledore says at one point:”we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. “(6)

Not only was J. K. Rowling able to envision and portray the world we are now living in, but she has also given us a wealth of wisdom about what it means to live a good life and be a good human being in the midst of such a world, and a vision of human agency that is both exciting and encouraging. It’s a vision we need to really be listening to, for it has captured the hearts and minds of a generation in a way that our current political and religious movements have so far failed to do. The question remains, however, whether it will remain simply fantasy literature or become a vision of how we can live in our world, which appears to be approaching the same kind of climactic struggle between good and evil that it portrays.

I would hope we could hear in Harry Potter the call of prophetic community and see in it a vision of what a church community can be:

  • A unified community in which we discover common ground and
    common purpose.
  • A community of truth that doesn’t hide from any reality.
  • A community of healing, where we can recover from the wounds
    life has left us with.
  • A community that welcomes all, including our many and profound differences.
    an imaginative community that does not let what is, or what has been,
    define what we believe is really possible.
  • A courageous community that does not let fear determine our actions,
    or the scope of our understanding of what we need to be about.
  • A community that embraces death and dying as something that helps us to realize and celebrate our impermanence so that we can use it to make a difference.
  • A community of love, with the kinds of friendships at its center
    that call us into who we can become.

J. K. Rowling concluded her speech to the new graduates by saying: “We do not need magic to change the world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” She encourages them/us to “use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice;”. . . “to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless;” . . . “to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages,”to help change the realities of “thousands and millions” of people.

That this is possible is the good news of Harry Potter. May it be so! For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.(7 & 8)

Footnotes
1) These statistics came fromWikipedia.
2) The quotes from J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech came from the internet, and have been republished in J. K. Rowling’s wonderful short book Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, published in 2015 by Little, Brown, and Co.
3) I also love these other quotes on the power of imagination from Rowling’s commencement speech:
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize.

4) Within the Harry Potter series you find a profound meditation on death, not only the death of loved ones but also the death of failure, the death of dreams, illusions, and desires. In her commencement speech J. K Rowling s holds up how important the experience of failure has been for her:

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

5) At the end of her commencement speech, Rowling wishes the new graduates the kind of friendships that have been so important in her life.  She then concludes:
I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters. I wish you all very good lives.

6) p.723, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

7) Donald Trump has cut Stephen King and JK Rowling off from his Twitter feeds, as they would frequently comment on his tweets.  In response to Trump’s  tweet insulting Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezinki, Rowling sent out the following  tweet: ” ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ Abraham Lincoln June 29th, 2017. ” However, my favorite tweet of hers was the one she sent out even before the U.S. presidential election when on Oct. 7, 2016 we wrote: “If we all hit ctrl-alt-del simultaneously and pray, perhaps we can force 2016 to reboot.”

8)  Because of the length of these reflections I did not focus on the scriptures for the day except for the gospel, but each of them helped inspire these reflections.
*Isaiah 51:1-6 holds up a vision of the essence of God as being salvation and deliverance so that even when heaven and earth pass away “My salvation and deliverance will never end.”  Thus Isaiah’s word of encouragement–therefore “look to the rock  from which you were hewn.” In other words, that salvation and deliverance lives in us.
*Psalm 124 presents a vision of the God who enables our souls to live and  who saves us from the enemies who would swallow us up alive.
*Romans 12:1-8: seems to have so many interconnections with Harry Potter as Paul speaks of the renewal of the mind as key to not being conformed to the corrupt world of domination and then goes on to speak of how “we are members of one another” and in that context we need to be humble as we exercise the gifts we have each been given for the common good.

**Watchtower photo courtesy Mateo Russo via Flickr. Harry Potter book cover image courtesy KitAy via Flickr.

Sunday Service 3/12/17: Sin and Embracing the Unknown

Reflections on sin given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor on Sunday, March 12th. (Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent(A): Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5,13-17, John 3:1-17)

What is sin? Living at the expense of others. From the March 12 Sundar sermon by Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.I’m continuing to feel like this Lent is a particularly good time to do some real thinking and talking about evil and sin as our participation in the reign of evil. Our dog Kirby gets excited when he picks up different scents, and lately I’ve been feeling the same way about this topic – so here are a few of the trails I picked up this week.

First, last week I was struck by Hugh’s reminding us of Jim Lewis’s very simple definition of sin as, “living at the expense of others.” I find this clear, simple definition remarkably helpful. Given all the junk we’ve heard and internalized about sin, it can be easy to lose our moral compass to the extent that we can go around feeling totally guilty about things that haven’t really hurt anybody — and at the same time be oblivious to the ways we have caused harm, or allowed harm to happen.

The idea of original sin isn't just historically incorrect - it's not even Biblical. From the March 12th Sunday Sermon by Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.Secondly, I was struck by Charles saying that evolution shows that the story of original sin is not historically accurate. I would add that the idea of original sin isn’t even Biblical, as this idea didn’t even emerge until the 3rd century. As Charles talked about the long evolution of human beings, it occurred to me that there may not have been sin before humans developed our fore brains — that is, before we could imagine a different way of being or acting. But once we had fore brains and we were able to imagine how our actions might affect others – and we still acted in ways that harmed them – that is when the problem of sin began. In other words, perhaps it is our fore brains, like Paul’s vision of the law, that have acted to render us guilty for what we’ve done or failed to do.

Third, after last week’s service, Amy mentioned to me that when she thought about when and where she had really sinned, she was almost always acting to avoid suffering. The implications of her statement are still really resonating with me. I’ve found that so much of personal and collective sin is about disconnection. When we do great harm to others, it’s almost always because we are disconnected from our hearts, minds, bodies, or souls.

Similarly, again and again great collective evils seem to happen when situations have been set up to help us to not see, and are thus disconnected from, the evil that is happening — for example, when people were taught that slaves aren’t equal human beings – or when the situation is so huge and complex that we don’t feel any connection or personal responsibility for the collective evil because our own, individual part in it is so small. Amy’s comment made me think about how often these disconnections are about avoiding suffering. Bryan Stevenson suggests they are often simply about our desire to avoid being uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful, to let ourselves feel our connection or disconnection from ourselves and others.

Fourth, this week on her Facebook page, Dixie wrote that perhaps original sin is about how our attachment to the world we are born into leads us to go along with the injustice that is part of that world. In other words, sin is rooted in our fear of letting go of the world as we have known it.

This really hit me in terms of our readings today, for all of them are about our need to let go of the world and ourselves as we have known them if we wish to live the life of faith, the life of the Spirit, and if we wish to be about the reign of God on earth.

The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic vision of faith begin with today’s story of Abram being called to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house to go into an unknown land. In a world where the stranger was often feared and attacked, Abram is called by God to become a stranger, to embrace the vulnerability of being an alien, as the means of becoming a blessing to others.

The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic vision of faith begin with today's story of Abram being called to leave his country, his kindred, and his father's house to go into an unknown land. From the March 12, 2017 Sundary Sermon by Rev. Joe Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.That is so powerful. It’s the very opposite of what so many call faith, which is all about holing up, hiding out, and becoming invulnerable. If you really let Abram’s story sink in, you can hear the direct connection between this idea of going forth as a vulnerable stranger and Jesus talking about our being called to the very places where suffering and injustice reigns – to meet God in those places and to become a blessing. You can also hear the connection between this vision and Paul’s letter to the Romans today about blessing being a means of “calling into existing things that do not yet exist.” That’s so powerful for me!

Finally, in our Gospel today we hear Jesus telling Nicodemus (and us) that unless we are willing to let go of who we are, be born again, and live a life led by the spirit – which he compares to being led by a wind which comes from where we known not and leads to where we know not – we are not going to be able to experience the reign of God on earth.

And here Jesus very explicitly says, “I’m not talking about what happens in Heaven, but what happens on Earth. About how, through this different way of living, we can experience the life of God, rather than the life of death, right here, right now, on Earth.

So just to recap – between these three readings, we hear that faith is a journey into the unknown that enables us to become a blessing to others, and that part of this blessing is that it enables new things, new realities, to come into existence.

This vision helps to reveal how so many of the conventional conceptions of sin can keep us from seeing what sin is really about, and also how we can be part of helping to overthrow the reign of evil.

So often, people think about sin as being a choice. We’re here in the middle of the road. So often, people think about sin as being a choice. We're here in the middle of the road. The right side of the road is the good side, the left side of the road is the sinister side of the road – and sin is about our choosing to go left rather than right ... I reject this idea because it suggests that we are standing on neutral ground. From the March 12, 2017 Sunday Sermon by Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.The right side of the road is the good side, the left side of the road is the sinister side of the road – and sin is about our choosing to go left rather than right. Being a left-handed leftist, you might suspect I might have trouble with this metaphor, but not for that reason.

Rather, I reject this idea because it suggests that we are standing on neutral ground. If that’s the case – that we start out in the middle and then choose whether to turn right or left – we are absolutely the cause of whatever evil happens, but we’re also not responsible for evil that doesn’t result from our direct actions.

But, as Dixie pointed out, we are not standing on neutral ground. We are born into a world not of our choosing. We are born into a world significantly shaped by a domination system where everything has been organized to control, dominate, and exploit people. We didn’t have a say in whether we were born into the top ranks of this domination system or the bottom. In such a world, sin happens in us and through us not only when we choose to sin, but simply when we fail to imagine and to act to break the ways that we are living at the expense of others. Sin is like the default mechanism. For evil to happen, all we need to do is go along with the way things are.

Here it is perhaps useful to think of the reign of sin in terms of the US at the time of slavery. Everything was set up to deny the slaves’ humanity. The only way to break through this evil was to claim slaves as your sisters and brothers, as flesh of your own flesh and blood of your own blood and then to act to free them from the evil of slavery. But trying to free slaves, or even to treat them as people, was illegal and considered by many to be immoral – and, for the longest time, even the idea of doing so was beyond most people’s imaginations and courage.

To use a more contemporary example, we might look at the current caste system in our country, at all the ways discrimination is perpetuated in terms of who can live where, who can go to school where, what kinds of jobs you have access to or don’t have access to because of where you went to school …

(The caste system in our country) a system that results in a kind of social despair – and the actions born of that despair are then used to justify even further discrimination, resulting in the United States jailing more of our people than any other nation in the world. From the March 12, 2017 Sunday Sermon by Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation.It’s a system that results in a kind of social despair – and the actions born of that despair are then used to justify even further discrimination, resulting in the United States jailing more of our people than any other nation in the world. Not only that, but we’ve created a huge caste of second-class citizens, ex-offenders who have completed their sentences but are still legally discriminated against in such basic aspects of living as housing and employment, and denied the rights of citizenship like voting or serving on a jury.

A key part of the mythic narrative that sustains this unjust system is the false idea that  everyone is walking in neutral territory, and therefore the evil that befalls them is their own fault.

But if we reject the idea that we all start in neutral territory, and we instead start with the great evil that exists right here where we are – and then work our way back to how we participate in perpetuating  or challenging that evil, we end up with a very different vision of sin.

Suddenly, you can understand why Paul says everything that is not faith is sin, because without faith’s imagination, vision, hope, courage and determination – you end up going along with systems that destroy the lives of millions.

Suddenly, you begin to understand that overcoming evils like starvation is not a matter of needing more technical knowledge to figure out how to produce more food or to get Suddenly, you begin to understand that overcoming evils like starvation is not a matter of needing more technical knowledge to figure out how to produce more food or to get food to those who are hungry, it's a matter of confronting policies based on narratives that justify neglect and harm. From the March 12, 2017 Sunday Sermon by Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation.food to those who are hungry, it’s a matter of confronting policies based on narratives that justify neglect and harm. As Bryan Stevenson has pointed out, we will not be able to overcome such evils without challenging the underlying narratives that justify them.

Suddenly you begin to understand that sin – when sin is rightfully seen as cooperation with great evil – is generally not as much about what we do as what we fail to do. It requires imagination to connect the dots, to see how the small role we are playing helps perpetuate these evils. It requires imagination to start to envision how we can begin to take responsibility for addressing these evils.

Suddenly you begin to see the ways our deformed consciences keep us preoccupied with minor things, that may not even really hurt anyone, also keep us from being able to see or address real evil.

Suddenly you begin to understand why Bryan Stevenson says we must be willing to be uncomfortable if we are going to stop helping to perpetuate these evils and begin to help overcome them.

We want our lives to be like the story of the Good Samaritan. We would like being good to be as easy as encountering people who have been left brutalized – and then we get to be the good person who helps to heal them and send them on their way. But our reality is different, because we live in a world in which we can see people being brutalized as it is happening. We live in a world where we can see people about to be brutalized before it happens.

This means there is no more neutral ground. We can wait until the beating is over and then help those who have been harmed, or we can intervene to stop or prevent the beating – which will bring us into direct conflict with those doing the harm. Either way, we are no longer bystanders. Either way, we have to really wrestle with what it means for us to be part of God’s reign of love and justice here on Earth in a way that those who want to restrict the concept of sin to what we individually do wrong aren’t willing to consider.

Letting go of a world view that says we’re little self-contained individual units that are only responsible for those we immediately bump up against leaves you incredibly vulnerable, but this is not a bad thing, for as Brene Brown says:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

In W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio the three wise men say: “To discover how to be human now/ Is the reason we follow this star.” These are words that suggest that our becoming human is dependent on our being led by revelation and what’s beyond our conscious minds.
Recently Donna and I got to hear the great Native America poet Joy Harjo speak and read her poems. Again and again, she talked about words being given to her and about stories coming to her that wanted to be spoken. That’s the language of prophecy. That’s the language of a person who’s willing to be led, of someone who recognizes that our conscious minds know only a small portion of what we know and that our egoistic minds know even less.

Only by being willing to enter the darkness of the womb of the unknown can we begin to look beyond to see what our corrupted vision would keep us from seeing, can we think the thoughts our corrupted minds would keep us from thinking, can we feel the feelings our corrupted hearts don’t want us to feel.

Please don’t misunderstand me – the conscious mind and rationality are terribly important to give us greater understanding, but if we limit our understanding to what they have to tell us we will always be driving into the future looking backwards.

Workers for justice are dependent on the creative vision of artists and poets and prophets to help us see, know and feel what we have been educated not to see, know and feel. If to live fully in the present we need to understand our past, we also can only come to that future world we have never been to, but which our hearts know of as home, by becoming co-creators of that future. But to embark on that journey require us to let go of and become a stranger to the world and ourselves as we have known them through embracing the unknown, and with it – that which we can’t see for it doesn’t yet exist.

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

Images courtesy April, Robert Young, TimOve, Moyan Brenn, meesh, and Darryl Joel Berger  via Flickr.

2017 Ash Wednesday Service: In the Eyes of Others

Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on March 1st, 2017, at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Ash Wednesday Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, & 16-21)

Last Sunday I talked about what it means to view things through heavenly eyes. Tonight we have a related, but almost opposite message. In our gospel today we hear:"when you pray - don't do it so you can be seen as holy by others," from the 2017 Ash Wednesday Service by Rev. Joseph Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

We are then given three examples of what this means:

  • When you give to the poor don’t do it in for the sake of being praised by others, instead don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing;
  • when you fast, don’t let others see that you are fasting;
  • when you pray – don’t do it so you can be seen as holy by others -rather, go into an inner room in your house where no one can see you and pray to God in secret, and the one who sees in secret will reward you.

Now first, let’s be clear, like almost everything in our scriptures these texts are ripe for misunderstanding and abuse. We can turn this text into the grounds a reward and punishment kind of religion, as if faith is basically about earning points with God so we’ll be rewarded later. Nothing could be farther from what these texts are about.

If you are into being scrupulous and read these texts through that lens, they will confirm everything you fear about the nature of the universe. You could hear them as calling for us not to be self-centered in any way. But that’s not what they actually say.

Other than to warn us not to turn our Lenten practices into a way of acting or thinking ourselves superior to others, what are these texts about?

I think they are telling us that one of the biggest temptations we face, one of the things most inimical to God-life, is our desire to be pleasing in the sight of others.

They tell us bluntly that we can get lost in our desire for the approval of others, and that letting this desire control us will bring us into direct conflict with Heaven’s agenda.

It’s a striking focus. There seem so many good things to warn us about on this the first day of Lent, but for Matthew right at the top of the list is this warning not to let our faith be corrupted by making it into an attempt to look good in the eyes of others.

Matthew's gospel is like one long raging howl against hypocrisy, from the 2017 Ash Wednesday Sermon by Rev. Joseph Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann ArborTo understand why this is such a serious issue for Matthew you have to understand that Matthew’s gospel is like one long raging howl against hypocrisy, about those who profess or pretend to be one thing, as a way of deluding themselves or others from seeing what they in fact are.

Matthew’s Jesus struggles not with non-believers, but with believers who have transformed faith from being a source of light into being a source of darkness, from faith being about the work of justice to being about supporting and maintaining injustice, from faith being a source of healing and health into a source of illness and corruption.

While criticizing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Matthew’s real target is those Christians who go around doing exactly the same thing: who love to look and sound pious, but who have forgotten the crucified God who lives in the isolated, the suffering, and the afflicted and whose life can only be known by living in solidarity with them.

I think if Matthew saw what passes for Christianity in so much of this country, we’d barely be able to stand his wrath. I suspect it would make the anger of Malcom X appear nice.

For Matthew, hypocrisy is what keeps those who are looking for salvation from finding it, because there are all these spiritually blind guides leading them further into the darkness. And, as Jesus says, when you have a blind guide you both up end up in the pit.

Practiced enough, hypocrisy – with its emphasis on hiding, being dishonest, and lying to others – leads us to become totally lost, no longer able to know who we are or where we are, unable to know whether we are full or empty, smart or stupid, helpful or harmful.

Those who follow the way of hypocrisy often end up with the kind of arrogance that leads others to see them as strong leaders, but they are nothing but a bunch of hot air, a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Practiced enough, hypocrisy - with its emphasis on hiding, being dishonest, and lying to others - leads us to become totally lost, from the 2017 Ash Wednesday Sermon by Rev. Joseph Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann ArborAnd our gospel today says that hypocrisy begins with something so simple and basic, so common among us, that it seems woven into our makeup – our desire to be pleasing in the sight of others. But Matthew warns us if you want your faith to be saving and not damning, if you want it to be healing and not corrupting, you must do everything you can to keep your faith from being about living from the outside in by attempting to look good in the eyes of others.

  • You aren’t really giving to others if it’s all about getting paid back by being seen as superior in the eyes of someone else. No – give without reward so you can experience what it really means to give.
  • It’s not really fasting, not really a sacrifice, if all day long you’re making a public demonstration of your pain. You are just feeding your ego. Fasting and sacrifice aren’t about being paid to give. They’re about giving at a cost.
  • It’s not really prayer if you’re praying to appear pious in the sight of others. That’s just another way of claiming your place of superiority in the social order. No, prayer is about coming to know the mysterious God who the social hierarchy does not know, the God who lives in secret and who seeks to undo that very order.

While our anxious hearts think we need to be above others, this God creates the grounds for equality and social solidarity, the reign of true kindness, empathy and compassion, by letting us know that we are loved for who we are, including all those parts we want to hide both from ourselves and from others.

Most of us don’t come to know, experience, and believe in that kind of love until we’ve unhooked ourselves from our need for approval from others. This is the God for whom true faith is about living the new creation, turning the world upside down, overthrowing the reign of fear and shame and proclaiming the reign of redemptive love.

It’s going to be terribly difficult for you to be part of this revolution as long as you’re terrified about upsetting others, as long as you’re shamed when others look down on you, as long as you can’t claim you own experience, feel your own feelings, think your own thoughts — because you’re too concerned about fitting in and being accepted.

Lent calls us to a kind of social death. Putting on these ashes represents letting go of the illusion that we are superior to anyone else. Putting on these ashes is about letting go of roles and expectations so that we can open ourselves to the reality of what is, and who we are. Only in this realness we can discover how the brilliant life of God-in-us can live and reign in us here and now. Only here can we come to know the resurrected life that we hear Paul singing of as, even in the midst of all the adversity he is encountering, he proclaims:

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
We are treated as unknown, and yet we are well known;
We are treated as if we were dying, but behold we live;
We are treated as if we were sorrowful, yet we are always rejoicing;
We are treated as if we are poor, yet we make many rich;
We are treated as if we have nothing, and yet we possess everything.

Or, as another translation concludes this verse – “Penniless we own the world.”

So often, the greatest harm we do to ourselves and to others is rooted in our fear that other people will see who we are, or some aspect of our lives. This Lent, may we turn away from that fear and our need to look good in the sight of others and turn towards the One who sees us in secret, who knows who we are in our totality, not just our public faces, so that we can discover what it is to live with integrity.

May we too discover the power to live that fast that Isaiah proclaims and the heavenly life it makes possible, so that our “light might break forth like the dawn, and healing spring up quickly”; and we might experience our vindicator going before us and behind us. So that, when we call for help, we might hear God answer: “Here I am.” So that our “bones might become strong” and we “become like a watered garden, or like a spring whose waters never fail.”  So that we might “rebuild the ancient ruins” and “raise up the foundations of many generations”; and become known as “the repairers of the breach,  the restorers of streets to live in.”

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

 

**Images courtesy of Vinoth Chandar, Johnathan Rolande, and Matteo Bonera via Flickr.

Standing on the mountaintop with Jesus and his disciples -- reflections by Rev. Joseph Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Feb. 26, 2017

Sunday Service 2/26/17: From This Mountaintop

Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on February 26th, 2017 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation(Readings for the Last Sunday of Epiphany: Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9)

The mountaintop story we hear today is the turning point in our gospel. From this mountain, Jesus will set his face towards Jerusalem to do the non-violent actions that will lead to his arrest and execution. For Peter, James, and John it is a moment in which they finally see Jesus with heavenly eyes: as one in whom the glory of God shines brilliantly, as one who talked to and was the equal of Moses and Elijah, as one through whom God spoke.

While our Epistle emphasizes that the disciples had the same revelation that Jesus heard in his baptism – that Jesus is God’s beloved son and one with whom God is well pleased – I would suggest the accent should be on the final line: “Listen to him!” That is, it’s not just about Jesus being one with God, but what God is saying through Jesus.

So often those who claim Jesus as the Son of God seems to think that what he taught can be ignored. At no time do I think we need to listen more closely to what Jesus is saying to us through his actions than in these events leading up to his death.

For Jesus and these three disciples, the mountaintop will be a last heavenly vision before the waters become incredibly dark and murky.

Up to this point, Jesus has spent his time primarily in Galilee trying to teach people about the nature of God and the way of God. He’s tried to show them how they can live the will of God here on earth through: sharing their food, forgiving debts, healing and caring for one another, standing up against injustice and prejudice, learning how to read the scriptures, practicing equality, speaking truthfully, and praying and learning to live from a place of trust and thanksgiving.

Whereas other religious teachers of the time spent their time primarily interpreting biblical texts, Jesus taught primarily through telling stories, parables, which forced his listeners to reflect on their own experience and determine for themselves the truth of the story.

Now, Jesus is going to Jerusalem, where he is going to engage in a re-telling of the story of the Hebrew faith. He’s going to challenge people with a vision of a new, very different kind of Exodus story.

And this time he’s not just going to tell a story, he’s going to act it out so that it will be a story that people will never forget.

If our enslavement were basically about evil people, Jesus could have become another Caesar or zealot committed to killing the oppressor. If our enslavement was simply about bad ideas, wrong thinking, than Jesus could have simply stayed a teacher.

But Jesus recognizes that the enslavement of humankind is not a simple as bad people, or bad ideas. It is about people and institutions embodying bad ideas, and the only way to exorcise these spirits and overcome these bad ideas was to confront them in a bodily form and force them to reveal themselves for who and what they were–not Godly dominion or faithfulness-but cowardice, prejudice, fear, greed, and the rejection of the living God.

Jesus will pursue a strategy that forces these people and institutions to do exactly that, knowing that the reign of lies can only continue as long as it wears the mask of truth, knowing that domination in the name of religion can only continue as long as people don’t know and don’t experience the God of redemptive love.

Jesus knows that this revelation will come at a great price, the price of his life, and yet he willingly embraces his death that we might know life. But worse — yes, there is a worse — Jesus knows the time is coming soon when he is going to have to trust his disciples to carry on this work after he is gone. How terrifying that idea must have been, that Jesus’ work was going to depend on those beloved but bumbling, uneducated but hard-headed and often closed-minded, heroic yet often egotistical, group he called his friends. Jesus must have longed for more time to prepare his disciples before entrusting the world to them, but there was no more time.

And it strikes me that today we are also there, on that mountaintop with Peter, James, John, and Jesus. In the resurrected Christ, we too have seen Jesus in all his glory.

Like Jesus, we have had glimpses of seeing how love is the only reality that matters.

Even though love can appear so weak and vulnerable in the face of violence and physical force, in the end Love is what is eternal. It is so important for us to have these mountaintop experiences, to be renewed in their light, to see our lives and world through heavenly eyes, and yet…..looking down from this mountain into that valley we are confronted with the complexity of this human experience and the dilemma we are facing as a species and a world.Between this mountaintop and the next, there is a valley with a deep, cold, muddy river -- a river we must face if we want to get to the other side. Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Feb. 26, 2017.

If people and institutions embodying bad ideas are what’s keeping people enslaved and keeping humanity moving towards extinction, how can we best overcome these bad ideas?

If lies reign by wearing the mask of truth, how do we best get lies to reveal themselves?

If this is primarily a spiritual battle, how do we stay grounded in love and the unitive vision that is the grounds of wholeness, healing and peace, especially when facing facing bullying, violence, murder, and ugliness?

If it is not just a matter of ideas and spirits, but how they are embodied in people and institutions and practices, how do we engage people and institutions and practices in such a way as to lead them to change?

And in all this, how do we recognize and embrace our own weakness, limits, and fallibility as human beings – human beings whose God often appears so very weak in comparison to the gods of wealth, military power, and physical coercion?

This mountaintop on which we can see clearly is incredibly important. We need to not only revisit it when we can, but also to carry it within us.

At the same time, something stands between us here on this mountaintop and the next one – the mountaintop on which we all recognize that our humanity is inextricably bound with one another’s. *

Between this mountaintop and that new world is a dark valley, a valley with a wide, deep, cold and muddy river – and we’ll only come to that next mountaintop, to that glorious new world, if we are willing to wade into the turbulent waters that face us.

But if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to make a way for us.

*This is a paraphrase of Desmond Tutu’s definition of “ubuntu”: “the awareness that ‘my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.'”

Images courtesy Tony Fischer and Ruth Hartnup via Flickr.