Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon for January 26, 2014

Help, My Husband Has Fallen
Audio version - click here
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
    so why should I be afraid?
The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger,
    so why should I tremble?
When evil people come to devour me,
    when my enemies and foes attack me,
    they will stumble and fall.
Though a mighty army surrounds me,
    my heart will not be afraid.
Even if I am attacked,
    I will remain confident.
Psalm 27:1-3

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Matthew 4:12-23
One day, as a seamstress was sewing while sitting close to a river, her thimble fell into the river. When she cried out, the Lord appeared and asked, "My dear child, why are you crying?" The seamstress replied that her thimble had fallen into the water and that she needed it to help her husband in making a living for their family.

The Lord dipped a hand into the water and pulled up a golden thimble set with sapphires. "Is this your thimble?" the Lord asked.

"No,” said the seamstress.

The Lord again dipped a hand into the river and pulled up a golden thimble studded with rubies. "Is this your thimble?" the Lord asked.

"No,” said the seamstress.

The Lord reached down again and came up with a leather thimble. "Is this your thimble?" the Lord asked.
"Yes,” admitted the seamstress. The Lord was pleased with the woman's honesty and gave her all three thimbles to keep, and the seamstress went home happy.

Some years later, the seamstress was walking with her husband along the riverbank, and her husband fell into the river and disappeared under the water. When she cried out, the Lord again appeared and asked her, "Why are you crying?"

"Oh Lord, my husband has fallen into the river!"

The Lord went down into the water and came up with George Clooney. "Is this your husband?" the Lord asked.

"Yes," cried the seamstress.

The Lord was furious. "You lied! That is an untruth!"

"Forgive me, Lord,” said the seamstress. “It is a misunderstanding. You see, if I had said 'no' to George Clooney, you would have come up with Brad Pitt. Then if I said 'no' to him, you would have come up with my husband. Had I then said 'yes,' you would have given me all three. Lord, I can’t take care of all three husbands, so THAT'S why I said 'yes' to George Clooney!

We can’t really blame that poor woman, can we? Most all of us have been in that spot. We make up a little lie, a delicate deception, to protect ourselves.  It’s what we do to help us feel more secure when our world seems unsteady, when our place in the world seems precarious. Have any of us ever spent more than a couple of minutes considering how simple it would be to cheat on our taxes and fool the government in order to benefit financially? Is there anyone you know who has ever been less than completely honest on a resume for a choice job they are pursuing?

Our spiritual ancestors understood this impulse. One of the first stories in our Scriptures is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They eat forbidden fruit and then lie to God in the hope of finding some security; wanting the light of wisdom in a world that darkened when they began to doubt God.

It’s a scenario as old as human time – one that we see played out in cartoons and sitcoms. A person with a moral dilemma has a decision to make. Then the battle for the conscience begins.  A figure in a red suit, with barbed tail and pitchfork, appears in a poof of smoke on the person’s shoulder. The devil on the shoulder tells the decision-maker to follow one’s indulgences. The figure is called a Shoulder Imp.  If you grew up watching Tom and Jerry cartoons, you might remember Jerry has a Shoulder Imp, a wicked version of himself with green fur and horns who tempts Jerry to make Tom’s life even more miserable. Disney’s dog Pluto has one, too. The Shoulder Imp symbolizes the moral darkness within all of us. While it is often cartoonish in appearance, it is always a dangerous and ultimately self-destructive force.

Believe it or not, Judaism has a version of the shoulder imp. It’s known as the yetzer hara. The Evil Impulse. Yetzer hara is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil. It’s more like an impulse toward pleasure or security. It is the seat of our selfishness, our ego, and our hatred. If left unchecked, it can lead us to the shadows.

For some ancient Rabbis, the job of humanity was to eliminate this inclination. Evil Impulse was seen as a form of idolatry. Evil Impulse represent our suspicion that this life is all there is. We become afraid and want to build monuments to ourselves and our families. We want these monuments will survive us so our legacy lives on. For some, this is also the definition of idolatry. Idolatry is the desire to create and worship human monuments, rather than God. Some teachers blamed Evil Impulse and idolatry for the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the exile of the Jewish people.  When some Rabbis imagined the Messianic Era, a time when the world as it is turns into the world as it should be, they wrote that God will, “bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of the wicked."

Other Rabbis took a more moderate approach. It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Evil Impulse, yetzer hara, amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed it and wrestled it into a chamber pot where they held it captive. While some were ready to destroy the yetzer hara, one Rabbi said. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy it? Hold it for three days and see what happens!” The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. They knew what they had to do. They let the Evil Impulse go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without it.

Judaism acknowledges that the engine of the world is not humanity’s quest toward good but rather our selfishness.  As poet Don Marquis wrote:
A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.
It was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.
There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong.
And shaken systems, star by star, awake and glow in song.
His poem goes on to suggest that if it weren’t for this unrest, if not for an urgent desire for change, for growth, the universe would grind to a halt. We humans have within us a perpetual hunger for more. It’s this hunger – this greed – that is responsible for every creative act. We want things that we don’t already have. We want things that we don’t need. We want to insert ourselves into spaces where we don’t already exist. It’s why we have children. It’s why we build things, learn things, and try new things. It’s why we try to crawl and walk, why we get married, why we get divorced. It’s why we fight for freedom, break records, take risks, and make New Year’s resolutions. The yetzer hara is trouble for us because we’ve been taught to erase it from our lives, while at the same time it is at the very root of life. Our impulses for personal advancement, our need for bodily satisfaction, the desire to leave your husband in the river in an exchange for George Clooney, may bring problems into the world, but these same desires also move it forward. Sometimes, the Evil Impulse, this carnal, selfish urge in us, gives the push we need to create our most full selves.

Consider this example. In one situation, you treat a person with an average amount of compassion but your compassion is genuine. In another situation, you treat a person with unparalleled kindness, but you have secret motives like wanting the other person to like you or wanting to feel good about yourself. Which is better? According to Sages, the answer is to embrace the selfishness. Go with the less-than-perfect motivations. Why? Because the end result is better. And so Rabbis instructed their students to push away the Evil Impulse with the left hand while bringing it near with the right.

Of course, if it is left unchallenged it will destroy us. So there’s a balancing force. In Hebrew it’s called yetzer hatov. The Good Impulse. Yetzer hatov pushes us to do good in the world. It inspires us to do charity. It is the engine of compassion. It is the instrument of our loving kindness.

I want us to consider that the moral life is not so much about making distinctions between good and bad motives. It’s about balance. There can be too much Evil Impulse, but there can also be too much Good Impulse. People who always act out of selfless love may end up hurting the people for whom they care. Think about it. If a moral saint is spending all her time marching for social justice, healing the sick and packing peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless, then she’s not taking time to read a good book, play a game with her kids or go enjoy God’s creation. If a moral saint is giving all of himself to save the world, he has no time to be an artist, or a good parent, or a skilled listener. There’s no chance for a truly selfless person to have the time or moral permission to develop the skills and relationships that make us interesting, well-rounded people. So, the goal of the moral life is balance – that middle way between pure selfishness and solitary saintliness.

I’ve been talking about Evil Impulse and Good Impulse. There are all kinds of other metaphors we use to make the same distinction. For instance, we talk about walking upright and being low. “She's an upstanding citizen. He's on the up and up. That was a low thing to do. He’s the meanest, dirtiest, most low-down varmint in the West.”  To remain upright, one must be strong enough to "stand up to evil." These are moral categories.

Another way to talk about the moral life is with the metaphors of light and darkness.  We see it in the writings of Dr. King: Every one must decide whether to will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. The Psalmist insists, “The Lord is the light of my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” Or as Matthew says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Light and darkness function like Good Impulse and Evil Impulse. They help us see that the need for security and safety are part of the human experience. Understanding that humans are often motivated by fear, will we shine and arise above oppressive patterns of behavior? Understanding that we have the desire to build monuments to ourselves, what will we build on behalf of God’s justice-loving realm?

In Matthew’s text, Jesus has just been baptized and then he battles the devil in the wilderness. We will circle back to the temptation of Jesus in a few weeks from now. Let me say here, I don’t think Jesus battled an actual cosmic Satan. I think it’s the yetzer hara, the carnal mind, the Evil Impulse. In the wilderness, Jesus decides what kind of Messiah he has come to be – what kind of kingdom he’s going to create. Now he’s ready for ministry. His first sermon is on a text from Isaiah: "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." Then Matthew goes on to tell us, "From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'"

Of course, if we are willing to be part of this new era, we have to admit there is such a thing as sin. There is darkness. There are times we are motivated by selfish gain and brought low by ambition. There are times when Evil Impulse gets out of balance and out of control. I don’t know about you, but the sins that really affect me are the times when I betray love and fellowship: “I didn’t notice. I didn’t care. I forgot. I lied to you…” Jewish mystics had a term for sins like these: cutting the shoots. The plants in the garden of life belong to God. Uprooting them, tearing greedily at their leaves, destroying their growth, poisoning them off, these are sins against both life and God. I know that when I cut the shoots of relationships and community, I feel lost. I want to do better. I want humanity to do better. What can we do for the good? What healing can we contribute to the world? As we recognize that we can be flawed people with uncertain motives, can we turn and find some hope?

As I’ve been hammering home over the past few weeks, the word “repent” means “to turn”. Turning to God means offering our whole selves, the good and the bad. We follow God with our virtuous inclinations as well as our selfish, difficult impulses. Turning to God means confessing the mistakes of the past. It means apologizing to those we have wronged. We can turn to connect with our true selves, our best selves. We can turn and show love to another. We can turn and treat someone with compassion. We can turn listen to their concerns, open our minds and hands to their plights. We can turn give them space in our busy lives. We can turn to heal the wound in the other person. We can turn and consider how we can give more, care more, heal more, repair more and love more. And maybe, just maybe, even if our motives are not wholly pure; even when we act out of pride, selfishness, or sycophantism; even if there are glimmers of the yetzer hara in our actions; even if we, at times, are still attracted to the darkness, maybe, just maybe we have still brought more love, more compassion, and more presence than if we had not acted at all.

Sources:
https://www.facebook.com/cbebk/posts/487541964659073
http://ralphmiltonsrumors.blogspot.com/2008/01/sermon-helps-for-sunday-january-27th.html
http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/epiphany3a.htm
http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Shoulder_Imp
http://imaginenosatan.com/Volume%203/3-5.html
http://www.mindspring.com/~dbholzel/1006.html
http://www.nnls-masorti.org.uk/page.php?ID=215
http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html
http://www.livescience.com/5511-saints-sinners-find-moral-balance.html


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sermon for January 19, 2014

Then Jesus Turned
The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).
–John 1:29-42
Jesus has just been baptized in the Judean wilderness. As I mentioned last Sunday, by allowing himself to be baptized by John, Jesus has identified himself as a revolutionary who launches a new reign of peace. The Roman Emperor is not the only son of god in town any more. There is a new Son of God, and associates his reign is symbolized with peaceful animals. The dove of the Holy Spirit rests on him. Jesus is the Lamb of God who rescues people from domination.

The idea of a lamb of God goes back to Moses and the Passover. Remember all those plagues from the Book of Exodus? In the Passover story, The God of Israel keeps trying to convince Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. Just when we think Pharaoh is going to give in, he changes his mind. So God sets up a final, terrible plague. All of the firstborn children across Egypt will die, with one provision.  All Israelites who smear the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorway will be saved when the angel of death comes. God provides a way for the firstborn to live. A lamb of God will set Israel free from their slavery in Egypt. From that day forth, a lamb will become a symbol of freedom.

Fast forward a few centuries. The people of Israel are in bondage to a different empire. Rome oppresses Israel with violent military occupation and heavy taxation. The Jerusalem Temple system is in collusion with Rome, using religious law to keep people subservient. Fresh from the waters of baptism arises Jesus, the Lamb of God, who will show the power of God and set people free from captivity. John the Baptizer says, “Look, this is the one I was talking about. This is the one you’ve been looking for. He is the Lamb of God. He has come to deliver you. He is the true Passover Lamb.”

So, Jesus is on a mission. Preach, teach, heal, and establish the peaceful, compassionate Kingdom of Heaven. He is walking in the direction of his destiny. Then something happens. One day, two disciples of John the Baptizer call out to Jesus, “Hey Teacher, where are you staying?” Pay attention to what happens next. Does Jesus keep walking -- “Sorry, guys, I can’t talk right now. I got a revolution to get to”? Does Jesus ignore them – “I don’t have time for this right now . . .”? No, two men ask Jesus a question and Jesus does something quite amazing. The text says he turns. Jesus turns.

The author of the gospel uses a Greek word that means to physically turn or spin around. But it can also mean a change of heart -- to change or convert  (στρέφω). The act of turning has the power to redirect a person's destiny. It affects the whole life of the soul.

Jesus turned.  Here’s why this is so amazing to me. We usually think of conversion as something we do.  But, right here, the Word of Life converts all of his energy into two young men. He interrupts his march from the wilderness in order to respond to include some questioners. Abraham Heschel once wrote, "No word is God's final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in [one’s] conduct brings about a change in God's judgment." I wonder if that’s happening here. The mission changes.  Jesus reveals a God of process. The plan is not set in stone. It unfolds with each step. With each stop. With each opportunity to turn.

The Rabbi changes his agenda. The Messiah turns. The Lamb of God has a change of heart. We need to hear this. Jesus turned. He changed direction. He reminds us that it is part of God’s nature to turn.  God hears us. God sees us in our most desperate places. God does not say, “Hey, life is tough and then you die. Too bad for you.” God turns. God joins us. God seems willing to change directions – to enter into the dust of our lives and ask, “What are you looking for.”

God changes. I have come to believe this as a firm part of my own faith. Many Christians want to deny that God actually changes. They say God is immutable. In other words, part of what makes God “God” is that God never changes. Some say God’s complete lack of change is one of the essential divine attributes, part of how God is different from the finite world.  God’s will is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

I have come to believe something different. God changes. God’s experience of the world is constantly shifting and growing. Each moment of our lives has a wealth of choices and possibilities. God’s aim for us is that each of those moments is filled with wholeness and beauty. But God does not know the future in advance. God doesn’t know what we will choose to do in each of those moments. God only knows the possibilities. When we turn away from God, we limit what God can do in our lives. But when we turn towards God, God turns even more to us. When we line ourselves up with God’s vision for our lives, we open new possibilities for divine action. The future is open, and God is present in every moment, seeking the highest possibilities for each and every creature.

Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s promise of redemption and release.

If I am right, if God turns for us, then can we turn for others? The general problem with turning is that while Jesus shows us how God turns for us, many of us refuse to do the same. The risks are too high. The costs are too great.  It takes too much sacrifice. Another way to talk about turning is the word “repentance.”  And repentance is not part of the normal order of things.

I hear some of this struggle in John’s Gospel. Jesus turns and asks the two young men, “What are you looking for?” They answer with another question: “Where are you staying?” Literally, “Teacher, where are you remaining?” The same Greek word for “stay” is repeated five times in this passage alone. Remain. Remain. Stay. Stay. Stay. The word can actually mean a few things: stay, dwell, lodge, rest, settle, endure, persevere, abide, and indwell. Dwelling is not the same as turning, right? Staying has to do with basking in God’s abiding presence. Turning involves facing God’s future. Staying has to do with stillness. Turning involves movement.

These two young men who question Jesus -- they want to know about staying. They want to know a little more about Jesus before accepting the call.  They asks about accommodations.

Jesus turns.

This is the song of the spiritual life -- finding the balance between remaining and turning; living in peace and safety or leaping into the unknown.  Shall we abide in God or turn and change direction? When should we stretch out in the hammock of God’s love and when should get up and follow the invitation to go where God is going and do what God is doing? There is a time and a place for each. It takes a lot of listening, and practice and failure to learn when to remain and when to change.

If we are looking for social change, then we can’t just stay, remain and abide. We can’t have revolution without turning. There is no justice without changing and repentance. We won’t have world peace without a change of heart.

Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s promise of redemption and release.

I’m reminded of this lesson as we remember the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.  King helped America begin to turn away from injustice by turning to non-violence. In 1963, King actually had his marchers sign a pledge of non-violence. Have you ever seen this? It says the following:
1.    As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus
2.    Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation - not victory.
3.    Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.
4.    Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.
5.    Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.
6.    Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7.    Perform regular service for others and the world.
8.    Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.
9.    Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10.    Follow the directions of the movement leaders and of the captains on demonstration.
Here is my two-sentence paraphrase: Change is in the air. Turn to God’s non-violent will, and God’s non-violent will circle back to you.  Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s promise of redemption and release. Like the words of the Shaker song Simple Gifts:
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
As Dr. King reminded us, we can turn from hateful words and physical attacks and judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

We can turn from the burden of hate or revenge and express anger in ways that lead to peaceful negotiation.

We can turn towards others and listen carefully, especially to those with whom we disagree.

We can turn towards those who have hurt us, and offer forgiveness.We can turn away from wasteful lifestyles that consume the earth’s resources and turn towards sustainability.

We can turn away from entertainment that makes violence look exciting, funny, or acceptable and cultivate community relationships.

We can turn from fears of inadequacy, and turn towards courage: Courage, to confront violence and injustice wherever we find it … Courage to challenge prejudicial jokes or remarks … Courage to challenge the purveyors and sponsors of violence … Courage  to work for gun control … Courage to fight for the new frontiers of equality, whether it be transgender rights in the workplace, food security for those who are hungry and getting their benefits cut, or immigration reform on our borders … Courage to put into practices the words and example of Dr. King, "to meet physical force with soul force." 

It all begins with a change in direction. A change of heart. We need to hear this.  Jesus turned. So can we.

Loving God, you sent Jesus to show us how to turn and live nonviolently.  Jesus, you turned listened carefully to everyone.  You turned and cared about the feelings of others.  You turned and forgave those who hurt you.  Your turned and paid attention to the people no one else cared about.  Jesus, send us your Spirit to help each of us be truthful whenever we speak, loving whenever we act, and courageous whenever we find violence or injustice around us. Amen.

Sources:
http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Fall_Holidays/Elul/Teshuvah/teshuvah.html
http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/NTpdf/joh1.pdf
http://day1.org/1078-what_are_you_looking_for
http://www.ipj-ppj.org/Reflections%20-%20Advocacy%20Suggestions%20-%20Lesson%20Plans/A%20Call%20to%20Discipleship%20--%20MLK%20Liturgies.htm
http://onefamilyoutreach.com/bible/John/jn_01_29-42.htm
http://www.tparents.org/Library/Unification/Talks2/King/King-630000.htm
http://www.shirhadash.org/rabbi/13/08/31/teshuvah.html




Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why I Won't Shut Up About Racism . . .

Some people wonder why, as a middle-aged white guy, I talk about racism so much. Let me try to explain . . .
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968. He said,
“It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle – the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly – to get rid of the disease of racism . . . I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion . . . We're going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent [the] explosions are, I can still sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”­­
So, how do you think we’re doing? Is Dr. King’s dream realized? Yes, we as a society have made gains. Yes, our awareness has grown and there’s no turning back. Yes, people of goodwill, including those who forged the civil rights movement, HAVE put their bodies and souls in motion for equality. But, have we overcome? Is the will of Almighty God still heard in our demands for equality?

I want to believe that each one of us longs to live up to our own best hopes. We all desire a world of equality and even of healing, where the suffering of the past can be salved and the future can be built on new trust. But it takes a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? Like many progressives, I’d like to skip this work. I’d like my actions and good intentions to speak for themselves. I’d like to think that I’m beyond the need for examining racism in society. But racism troubles me. It affects ,my family. It's roots are buried deep in U.S. history. Talking about it is difficult.

When we address injustice in the world, we heal the world. This is a significant point for those religious liberals who tend to dismiss healing as a central part of religion. I think part of the purpose of religion is to heal the world; part of the function of religion is bring wholeness when we are damaged by the injustice of evil systems.

Someone recently sent this quote to me. It comes from Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound. Writing about racism as white man of majority, Berry confesses,
“. . . I write with the feeling that the truth I may tell will not be definitive or objective or even demonstrable, but in the strictest sense subjective, relative to the peculiar self-consciousness of a diseased man struggling toward a cure. I am trying to establish the outlines of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness – the sense of being doomed by my history to be; if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak"
I highlighted that phrase at the end. It resonates with me -- the reflexes of racism. We've been conditioned, down to our synapses, to accept racism without even thinking about it. The good news is that we can learn a new reflex! We can be reconditioned! We can become aware!

If we want to  address society’s racism problems with prayerful action, we need to confront racism on systemic, institutional, and individual levels. For all the work we’ve done, racism lurks everywhere. I cannot think of one area of American life that is not touched by this ongoing evil.

According to census data, 26.6% of all Hispanic persons and 27.4% of all black persons are living in poverty. If we want to care of the poor, we will  end the poverty of racism.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that black males are incarcerated at a rate 6 times higher than white males. There are over 2.5 times as many Hispanics in jail as whites. Many African Americans and Hispanics are less able to afford high quality legal services and they may be subject to discrimination in prosecution and sentencing. If we want to address the injustices of the penal system, we also need to address the injustices of racism.

African American women who have college degrees, who have insurance and who have good jobs actually have higher rates of infant mortality than white women who dropped out of school after eight grade, who don’t have high occupational status and who don’t have very good health care. Why is this? Some research says racism has a physiological affect that overloads the body. These affluent or middle class African American women experience so much daily stress from racism, their bodies can’t rest. Their blood pressure stays elevated at night. Their immune systems become compromised. Racism and discrimination are a public health matter. African Americans routinely get less access to health care and less quality care. If we want to heal our nation’s public health crisis, we also need to heal the disease of racism.

If we are going to talk about poverty and housing, then we need to talk about the environment to which they are linked. In the United States, lead poisoning continues to be the number one environmental health threat to children living in inner cities. Nationally, three out of five African Americans and Latino Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites. Some predict global warming will negatively affect poor American families who will have to spend even more on food and electricity, which already represent a large proportion of their budgets. If we want to care for the earth and her people, then we must eradicate the toxic racism that poisons our Home.

Speaking of homes, a recent study using data from the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas found that living in a predominantly African-American area, and to a lesser extent Hispanic area, is a powerful predictor of foreclosures across the nation. Predatory lending aimed at racially segregated minority neighborhoods led to mass foreclosures that fueled the U.S. housing crisis. If we want to help construct housing markets where all people in this land have a solid roof over their heads, then we also need to deconstruct racism.

What about our schools? Institutional racism is subtle, and often unintentional, but always potent. Many students of color do not have access to fully credentialed teachers or high-quality curriculum materials and advanced courses. The Southern Poverty Law Center reviews civil rights history curricula in standards across the country. Most states, unfortunately, get a failing grade. Last time I checked, sixteen states do not require any instruction about the civil rights movement. In another 19, coverage is minimal. If we want to solve our education crisis, then we also need to dissolve racism.

Dr. King knew that it was not up to God to deliver anyone from racism. God is not that kind of deity. Dr. King might say that you cannot wait for miracles. You have to march forward and seize them. He might say that the Reign of God will come it its fullness as soon as we open our eyes and truly see the many hues around us and the real challenges that come with awareness. We refuse to gloss over history but see the pain and hear the suffering of others. We seek to live not in a melting pot where all is formless and void, but in a place where all of our stories, languages and cultures are valued; where our wounds are healed by deliberate listening. We strive to know and respect our differences and make possible the highest expectations for humanity. We do the work of liberating ourselves from hatred beginning in the modest places of our longing souls and always reaching out with our words, our actions, our prayers, our love and our hands to all souls. ALL souls. This is how we can be made whole again. This is how the world can be made whole again and all her people one.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sermon for January 12, 1014 / Baptism of Christ

Ready for the Revolution?
Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it. The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Matthew 3:13-17, The Message
The waters of baptism are subversive waters.

To subvert something is to overthrow it, but by indirect means. Subversion isn't a frontal assault; it's a stealth campaign. The prefix, sub, means "from below" and -vert comes from the Latin for "to turn." So to subvert something is to turn it from below; in other words, to turn it upside down.

The waters of baptism are subversive waters. If we dive into today’s text a little, we can see it. We can sense just how revolutionary baptism can be. To see it, we need to take note where Jesus’ baptism takes place – in the wilderness. Not in the city. Not in the center of power, but in the desert – the fringes of society. It’s where the social protesters and agitators led their followers in the first century – into the wilderness. John the Baptizer’s choice to gather his followers and preach in the wilderness means that he is stirring up some protest. The story carries an upside-down symbolism. By giving up their old ways and getting dunked in the Jordan river, John’s followers declare that God’s true power is emerging on the margins of the society.

And then here comes Jesus. Jesus joins the protest on the banks of the Jordan in the wilderness.

When I read Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism, I can’t help but to think of the connection of three words:

            The word repent, which literally means “to turn around.”
            The word baptize , which means “to submerge”; to plunge under.
            The word subvert, which means “to turn upside down.

To read John and Jesus’ revolutionary story correctly, we need to prepare for these three actions: we turn around; plunge into our own waters, chilly and cold; and we prepare to turn the world upside down. Let’s think about each of these a little bit more.

Repent

Repent comes from a Greek word that indicates a change of mind-set. When we repent, we adopt a new mindset that causes us to turn around and go in the other direction. Turning around creates a new way of relating to the world. Both John and Jesus opened their public ministries with this word: “Repent. Change your hearts and minds. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At the wilderness waters of the Jordan, Jesus affirms repentance as part of the revolution.

The traditional understanding of “repent”, we are told, means to turn away from personal sin. I’m wondering, in this case, if repent means to turn away from political and religious systems that exclude and dominate others. If John the Baptist were here today, he might say something like this: “Your country has allied itself with God’s enemy. Your political system, regardless of your political party, has allied itself with God’s enemy. Your religious system has allied itself with God’s enemy. But I have good news. A new nation is close at hand. God has just inaugurated a new nation that’s not part of your current government; it’s not part of your religious system; it’s not controlled by your political parties. This nation will have a Ruler, and that Ruler will be the child of Almighty God. To be part of this new nation, all of your affiliations with the present world system must be completely severed. You must leave them behind. Come down here into this water, repent. Turn away from your ties with this world order.”

I think Matthew’s Gospel was written for early Christians who needed encouragement to keep the revolution going. Christians were viewed as radical outcasts . . . dangerous people who turned on the existing government. They claimed to be part of a new nation, not bound by geographical boundaries and geo-political governments or theocracies, but by their baptismal identity in Christ. You can see how this would be threatening. The Roman Empire won’t be able to tame this revolution for another 300 years through some subversion of their own.

When we become followers of Jesus, we make the choice to walk down a different road than what most of those around us are walking. For those on the wilderness banks of the Jordan River, being part of the God movement called the Kingdom of Heaven means turning away from a current world order that rules through war, fear, taxation and manipulation. When Jesus lets John baptize him, it is an attempt to overthrow the dominance of the current religious and political system. It’s not a revolution with weapons and warfare. It’s a change of hearts and minds. It’s an insurgency of inclusive love that begins with repentance. It’s a public declaration by people who want to turn away from the old order so that God to do something new.

Baptize

In the 21st century, the real question  may be, "Does Baptism mean anything at all?"  For many people, baptism is neither powerful nor significant.  It can feel like a worn initiation ritual of a bygone era, or an antiseptic event that’s been streamlined for the sake of convenience.  When we baptize our babies, we don’t often think about how we are inducting them into a revolution of love.

As I mentioned earlier, the word baptize literally means to submerge. In some ways, baptism is a death warrant. For Jesus and John, it was a literal death warrant. Submersion in the waters of baptism was an act of defiance that put old-order authorities on notice. Christians later talked about baptism as a way to put the old self to death so that a new self could emerge. We sometimes call death the great equalizer. Death comes to everyone, regardless of social status, race, gender, or life circumstance. Baptism was viewed much the same way. Everyone is equal in the waters of baptism. Racism, classism, sexism, ageism and homophobia are signs of the old ways that needs to die away. Those destructive behaviors need to be submerged and drowned in order for a new way of living to emerge.

Baptism breaks down the social walls standing between us. It can be seen as an act of civil disobedience. Baptism submerges us into a community that is broader than any nation state or religious system, uniting us with a message of inclusion, justice, and compassion.

Subversion

Subversion is another kind of “turning” – not turning away but turning upside down.  I’m guessing that many of us are not comfortable with this idea. Most Christians rarely consider themselves subversive.

The spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” reminds me of the subversive, world-flipping message of the gospel. Some say that the song was written as a signal to runaway slaves. Wade in the water means, “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Now that’s a subversive way to help people!

Based on the reflections of Walter Rhett from the blog BlackHistory360, I want to offer another interpretation. Rhett says that runway slaves did not need a reminder to wade in the water to throw off their scent. They already knew that well. The spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” sings about how to practice faith. Part of the real subversion of the song is that enslaved Americans took the religion of slaveholder. They made Christianity their own and reinterpreted it. Make no mistake, Wade in the Water is about freedom, but it’s about inner freedom as much as it is about legal or physical freedom. Enslaved Americans could wade into the water to find that unassailable place that could not be controlled by any human master. In the spiritual, if you want to find yourself, the first step is to walk into troubled waters.  You meet hardships with courage and steady faith. Gather now and get ready so that you will delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. So “Wade in the Water” is more than instructions for running away, which only a small number of border state slaves were able to do. It is a dramatic story of God’s ability to restore and redeem.

As the new church year begins, we here at CCC are going to wade into some troubled waters. Over the next few weeks, we are going to think about race and culture, class and power and privilege. We are going to prepare ourselves to continue to promote social righteousness. We are going to think about how the troubled waters swirling around us touch our hopes and fears and keep us from becoming a beloved community. We are going to explore what it means to be converted, to be subverted, to grow in the practice of our church covenants – especially our Anti-Racism covenant. The road toward a multi-cultural church goes through anti-racism awareness. Period. That’s our Jordan River, you could say. The road to multicultural community must pass through awareness of all the sources of privilege that lock injustice in place. That is the Jordan we stand before. We are invited to wade in the water, to claim the very real death struggle between old values that keep God in heaven and the world as it is.

The waters of baptism are subversive waters.This liberating gospel compels us into the world, confronting issues of race and gender, worship and spirituality, witness and mission, sin and salvation--scary stuff.  Instead of distracting ourselves by turning inward on each other ,often ignoring the hurt rampant around us, we can rise up and to carry out Jesus' revolution. Repentance. Baptism. Subversion. Revolution. In other words, let’s be the change we want to see.

Sources:
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2252
http://stillcircle.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/the-language-of-subversion-class-warfare-and-the-politics-of-envy-in-21st-century-australia/
http://young.anabaptistradicals.org/2013/10/09/pitfalls-and-proposals-for-the-post-christendom-reformation/
http://blackhistory360.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/decoding-wade-in-the-water/
http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/01/10/weekly-sermon-wade-in-the-water/

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