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“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)



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.

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.

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.


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)

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.

Sunday Service 12/11/2016: The Harsh Good News

Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given on December 11th, 2016 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent(A): Isaiah 58:1-10, Psalm 146-4-9, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11)

xmas-star-eustaquio-santimanoAdvent is about the coming of God and in Isaiah today we hear what this means. It is the time when the desert shall rejoice and blossom with joy and singing. It is the time when the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leap like a dear, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. It is the time when the outcasts shall come home with joy upon their heads and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

But our brother Matthew, the author of the gospel we have begun reading this Advent, has a problem. There are folks who think that the coming of God happens simply by people believing something. There are folks who think that to prepare for God by following in the way of Jesus, all you need to do is participate in church services and perform miracles of healing.

In a very different way, we see Matthew trying to tackle some of the same problems Paul was tacking several decades earlier.

Matthew’s whole gospel is a fiery assault on what he sees as the hypocrisy of the idea that you can be a Christian without doing the kinds of things that Jesus did: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, reaching out to those in prison, overthrowing injustice, working for social equality. In a nation where so much of Christianity has been co-opted and used to justify the very domination system, with all its injustice and neglect, that Jesus gave his life to challenge, I find Matthew’s gospel like a cool drink of water in a hot and dry dessert. But to hear Matthew’s gospel in this way you need to get rid of the domination lens through which we’ve been taught to read this gospel and instead hear Matthew as a brother desperately trying to get people to hear the Good News as something other than simple superstition.

Last week we heard Matthew’s fire coming through the mouth of John the Baptist. John is going after those who think that because they are ethnically Jewish and uphold the traditions of the past, as both the Pharisees and the Sadducees do, that they are somehow okay. John’s words set them straight on this: “You brood of vipers– who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Luke’s version of this text helps to articulate what John means by bearing fruit that befits repentance: Let the one who has two coats share with the one who has none. Let the one who has food share with the one who has none. Tax collectors –stop stealing from people. Soldiers–stop robbing people through coercion and the threat of violence. The fruit is all about actions. It is the brass tacks kind of stuff that needs to happen if everyone is going to be able to experience the reign of love.

On the surface we hear a message aimed at Jews calling them to wake up from their complacency and arrogance and turn back to the faith of the prophets, but beneath that surface I believe what we are hearing is a message addressed to Christians who are doing something similar. While they may not be thinking that being ethnically Jewish makes them part of God’s in-group–they are thinking that because they have affirmed a belief in Christianity that they are now part of it. To them, Matthew is saying: “Hold on–not so fast. The gospel of Jesus is not just about words and beliefs–it is about deeds and actions. It’s not just about proclaiming the reign of love–it’s about doing the work of love. The kingdom of God is not just about an afterlife–it is about how you are living and what you are doing here and now to love and care for others.”

We hear Paul speak directly about these problems in his letters to the church in Corinth. Communion was meant to be an enactment of God’s feast of love for all, so it was held by having big meals together. But in the church at Corinth, by the time the poorer workers arrive from working in the fields all the food has been eaten by the wealthy and those who didn’t have to work such long hours. Paul says that this transforms the Eucharist thanksgiving feast, into a kind of anti-communion that heaps burning coals on those who participate in it.

The congregation in Corinth prided itself on all the miracles they were able to perform in Jesus’ name. Later in Matthew’s Gospel we will hear Jesus denounce such Christians saying: “I don’t know you. For when I was hungry you didn’t feed me, when I was thirty you gave me nothing to drink, when I was naked you didn’t clothe me, when I was in prison you didn’t visit me.” When those Christians cry out, “Lord when did we fail to do these things for you” Jesus responds, when you didn’t do these things for the least of my sisters and brothers you didn’t do them for me.”

When I was lost in a Catholic Charismatic Christian community that passage helped to wake me up. One of its leaders had told me that doing the work of justice was like being a garbage collector in the Kingdom of God. Coming across that passage I thought, “Well, I’d rather be true to what I know, and if that means I’m a garbage collector in the kingdom of God–so be it.”

Matthew’s gospel is a hell of a message in a country where so many Christians imagine Christianity is simply about caring for your own family, or the people in your own church, or the people in your own community.

Matthew’s message rains salt and fire on those who have gotten lost in religious babel, who have come to believe that religion is about power and glory and wealth and status. Contradicting this, Matthew says the faith of Jesus the Messiah is a faith in a God who operates in human history, who works through people, to bring about the reign of love on earth here and now. It’s not a faith that’s going to make you wealthy. It’s a faith that will lead you to be persecuted as you stand up for the oppressed and against injustice, as you challenge those, like King Herod and those like him, whose wealth and power and privilege comes at the expense of others and who will do everything to violently defend them.

If you believe that radical social inequality causes all kinds of terrible suffering, leading up to the destruction of those civilizations that practice it- you may begin to be able to hear John the Baptist’s and Matthew’s harsh words in a different light.

This last week I read an article about the work of an historian who says that, in general, in human history, we have not moved towards greater social equality except through total disaster. For example, the collapse of the Roman empire and the plagues that came with it, the bubonic plague during the middle ages, and the aftermath of World War II all marked periods where we saw society move towards greater social equality.

Do we have to wait for that kind of disaster, or is there another way? For Matthew and John there is another way, but it can’t be just a matter of thinking or talking in certain ways, or believing certain things, it’s got to be a matter of doing the work of justice and the deeds of love.

Jesus ended up looking and sounding nothing like the messiah John was expecting. John seems to have been expecting the kind of Messiah who would ride in on a white horse with a big sword to slay the wicked. Thus it is not surprising, as we hear today, that John would send some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the messiah or whether they are to await another.

And Jesus response is powerful. He doesn’t hold himself up, he instead points to the fruit of his work: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are experiencing the good news.” John would have recognized these from the writings of the prophet Isaiah as signs of the reign of God.

Jesus then ends with talking to the crowds about John. He says, John was a real prophet (not a court prophet) as seen in his willingness to rough it in the wilderness and his steadfastly speaking out despite all the threats he faced. John is even more than a prophet for he’s helped to usher in the new age. Then in words that are confusing, mysterious, challenging and exciting, Jesus concludes: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist: yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

In a world that was all about lineage Jesus follows John in proclaiming, God doesn’t really give a hoot about lineage. Matthew affirms this message in the beginning of his gospel when he goes out of his way to point out Joseph’s royal lineage only then to say, but Jesus wasn’t really Joseph’s biological son. In other words, Jesus is a good example of how God can raise children out of the stones themselves.

Jesus is holding up John as a prophet who cried out for justice, but appears to be saying there was also something missing in John’s proclamation. Was it that the kind of language where John compares people to dead trees that need to be burned was lacking in love? I don’t know, but that certainly seems to be the case. Jesus holds up John as a prophet of repentance, but repentance is apparently not the same thing as entering the reign of God. Something more is needed.

Lastly, Jesus challenges John’s disciples to look around them and see how the poor, the handicapped, the sick, the lost, all those who have been viewed as less than, are coming back to life. This means that when Jesus turns towards these same crowds and says to them that any of them can be greater than John, he is holding up a vision of the last having becoming first, those who had seen themselves as lost and forsaken being able to be, like John, ambassadors of God and somehow even greater than John.

God’s kingdom, power, and glory have nothing to do with wealth. They have nothing to do with status, but they are as real as the glory you see in the evening sunset, or the millions of stars you can see in the Milky Way, or in a person who has been dead and who has come back to life through realizing who they are and what they are and where and how they can make a difference in this world.

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

Image courtesy Eustaquio Santimano via Flickr.