Boundary-breaking God

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Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009) R.I.P.

INTRODUCTION: The Japanese theologian to whom Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness is dedicated delivered these words a decade ago from the pulpit of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St Paul, Minnesota. Contrary to popular misconception, the biblical prophets did not fore-tell the future; they rather forth-told a word greater than their own. Kosuke Koyama‘s experience led him to hear something quite clearly – a word he could not have known would be more important in 2017 than the day he spoke it.

THE SERMON, June 6, 2006. Texts: Leviticus 19:33, Psalm 139: 7-10, and Luke 14: 1-6. [Bold type added by Views from the Edge.]

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Jesus Christ,

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. – Lev. 19:33.

This is a challenging suggestion for the immigration and naturalization policy of any nation. God does not discriminate between citizens and aliens. The God of the Bible is more concerned about the welfare of the aliens, the weak, than of citizens, the strong.

Remember your own experience in Egypt! “Love the alien as yourself!” Jesus is even more emphatic when he says, “Love your enemies!” We think of aliens and enemies as potential threats to our community. They must be kept outside of our boundaries.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” observes the New England poet, with sharp insight. Something there is in the gospel of Christ that dismantles walls. Jesus “has broken down the dividing walls,” we read in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (2:14)
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“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) – This Word, the truthful Word, “breaks down the dividing walls” by making honest dialogue possible. When communication breaks down peace breaks down. It takes a great deal of dialogue to come to mutual understanding between peoples of different language, religions, racial and cultural practice. Often the choice is between dialogue and mutual destruction, between diplomacy and war. The alternative to dialogue is taking the sword. Jesus says; “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt.26:52). Our “sword” today is incredibly destructive! Our fear, today, is of nuclear proliferation. We fear it because we started it! “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”! (Dt.30:19)
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The brief gospel text for this morning is a record of a profound dialogue. The story is honest and transparent. We can understand it very well. The dumfounded lawyers and Pharisees only reveal the sincere quality of the story. In conversation with Jesus, the man of total honesty, human hypocrisy is exposed and expelled.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” but they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this (Luke 14:1-6).

How boldly Jesus simplifies and zeroes-in on the central issue! “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” This is the question that distinguishes the gospel from religion. This story is only one of a number of “Sabbath controversies” told in the gospels. The gospel breaks boundaries. Religion often insists on boundaries. The gospel opens windows in hope. Religion may shut windows in fear. The gospel is “scandalously” inclusive. Religion often is piously exclusive. “You shall love the alien as yourself” expresses the spirit of the gospel. Religion tends to question whether everyone deserves to be loved.

The Sabbath is a holy institution commemorating the holy rest God has taken after creating “heaven and earth.” Sabbath is mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Ex.20: 8-11).

“On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered” (Lk. 6:6) “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (13:10,11).

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, … Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy” (the disease of the swelling from abnormal fluid retention ). A man of withered hand, a woman who is bent over, and a man with dropsy appear “on the Sabbath in front of him.”

Jesus cures them. Jesus “works” on the Sabbath! Some for whom it is important to “keep” the sabbath complain, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Lk.13:14). Jesus, for whom the persons with need are more important than the rule, responds, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”

Jesus comes to heal the broken human community. He is the embodiment of direct love-action and action-love. He cures sick people publicly on the Sabbath with unassailable authority and freedom. The people are amazed – ecstatic – and praise God. Representing the God of compassion, Jesus breaks the boundary attached to the sacred Sabbath tradition. In his “boundary breaking” he restores the authentic purpose of the sabbath – that is, to bring health to human community. The Sabbath is for healing. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” says Jesus (Mk.2:27). What a freedom he exhibits!

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The gospel of Jesus Christ is “scandalous,” says the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1: 18-25) for he is “the man who fits no formula” (Eduard Schweizer, (Jesus, chap. 2). Creeds, doctrine, theology, or tradition cannot domesticate Jesus. No one can confine Jesus within walls. Let me quote from a Swiss New Testament scholar:

“…teaching in itself does not convey the living God. It may even hinder his coming, though it (the teaching) may be totally correct. It is exactly the most correct and orthodox teaching that would suggest that we had got hold of God. Then he can no longer come in his surprising ways” (Eduard Schweizer, Luke: A Challenge to Present Theology p.58)

We feel uneasy when Jesus breaks the boundaries we make, because boundaries are a part of our accepted culture. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Yet, fences can never be the final word. Tragically in our real lives fences work more in the direction of mutual alienation than mutual embrace. “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” – says the poet. That is a good question!

When I was in my early teens, Japan followed her gods who were rather poorly educated in international relations. They were parochial. They spoke only Japanese. They did not criticize Japanese militarism. They endorsed the inflated idea that Japan is a righteous empire. Trusting these parochial gods, the people recited, to paraphrase: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, behold the glory of the divine emperor of Japan is there!” Japan broke international boundaries in pursuit of self-glorification and aggrandizement. Without any threat from her Asian neighbors, Japan attacked and invaded them. The Japanese gods approved and Japan ruined herself. Blessed are nations that have a God who criticize what they do! The God of Israel said to God’s own people: “You are a stiff-necked people!”

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The infant Jesus “was placed in a manger – “for there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Being thus edged out even from a human birth place, Jesus breaks a boundary. When he “eats with sinners and tax collectors” (Mk.2:16) he breaks a boundary. Crucified, nailed to the cross, – completely immobilized – he breaks a boundary. Dying between two criminals, becoming a member of this community of three crosses, he breaks a boundary. Being “numbered with the transgressors”, to quote from the Book of Isaiah (53:12), he breaks boundaries. This is an amazing story. The one who is totally vulnerable, disarmed, non-violent, and immobilized and humiliated has broken all the boundaries, which threaten the health of human community.

With our geopolitical realities, we may think that the way of Christ is romantic and not realistic. Then we must know that the alternative is the historical fact of 5000 years of human civilization replete with constant warfare. Should we continue this state of endless destruction for another 5000 years? Gandhi’s practice of non-violence has done more to increase the welfare of humanity upon the earth than many wars put together. Martin Luther King Jr. says: “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival”! (Strength to Love, p.47) “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God‘s weakness is stronger than human strength” cries the apostle Paul (1 Cor.1:25).

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“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26). The birds of the air and the Father who feeds them are free from all boundaries. Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989. The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Check Point Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today. “One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself” says James Baldwin. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God.

 

Elijah’s face

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Elijah calm

Five day old Elijah

Looking at the contentment on Elijah’s face, do you suppose he’s already read grandpa’s Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness or has memorized grandpa’s favorite psalm, Psalm 46? I wish I could be this calm, this cool, this collected, this still.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
    though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

[Psalm 46, NRSV]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2017

Jesus’s Last Wish

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As Kay and I walked through the passion narrative in the Gospel according to John Friday night in the quiet of our living room, we paused a number of times to share questions or observations about what we were reading.

Few of the church’s traditional “seven last words” from the cross appear in John, the last written of the New Testament Four Gospels. Four of the “words” we expect to hear from having read Matthew, Mark, and Luke are missing in John:

  1. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Luke 23:34)
  2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
  3. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)
  4. Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

The first three are altogether missing. A fourth “word” – the seventh of the traditional last words, becomes a third person description by the narrator, as it had been in Mark and Matthew: “. . .  he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Brooklyn_Museum_-_What_Our_Lord_Saw_from_the_Cross_(Ce_que_voyait_Notre-Seigneur_sur_la_Croix)_-_James_Tissot

“What Jesus saw from the cross” – James Tissot

But while John’s Gospel offers less of what we have come to expect in light of the earlier Synoptic Gospels, it adds three words:

1.”I thirst,”

2.”It is finished,” and

3. this strikingly intimate conversation with his mother and an un-named “disciple whom he loved” within the hearing of “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas (i.e. Jesus’s aunt), and Mary Magdalene:

“‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the un-named disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (John. 19:27-28)

This startling exchange – this strangely intimate “last wish” normally reserved for the bedside of a dying patient – shifts the focus of John’s crucifixion narrative from the horror of Jesus’s torment to the primacy of the community: the familial bond between his mother and the beloved disciple which would survive him.

It is this beloved and loving community which carries forward the teaching and ministry of the Logos, the Word made flesh in him and in us, by the creative working of the Spirit of the Living God. “Woman, behold your son!” “Disciple, Behold your mother!”

The Good Friday conversation in our living room shifted from the anticipated tears of torment to the hope that rises whenever the invitation from the cross becomes reality, whenever we, in our time, become the beloved community of the un-named disciple: the transformed and transforming home for Mary and all her un-named children.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 18, 2017.

 

 

 

Toward a Deeper Self-Knowledge

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In two days Christian churches will observe Maundy Thursday, focusing on Jesus’s last meal with this disciples, “the Last Supper”.

A QUESTION

Reading the Gospel texts afresh each year often raises new questions and, occasionally, yields fresh insight. This year it was a line in Matthew’s text.

Jesus and the twelve apostles are at table. They have all washed their hands before the meal, a ritual practice before the meal. They will all use their hands to eat and share the food in common. All hands must be clean. Or, perhaps, Matthew is referring to the bowl of herbs and spices into which they had all dipped their hands.

Jesus has been speaking of betrayal. “‘Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they were greatly distressed and they began to say him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ He answered,

“‘the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.'” – Matthew 26:21-23 NRSV.

ONE? Only ONE?

All of them – all 12 – had dipped their hands into the bowl.

Matthew does not say “One of you.” It says “the one.”

The reply “Surely not I, Lord,” assumes innocence. “Not I!”

THE WIDER MEANING OF ‘BETRAY’

The Greek word we translate into English as ‘betray’ has multiple meanings: hand over/arrest/betray. “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will hand me over” or “. . .  arrest me” are alternative translations to the “. . . betray me” preferred by Christian translators.

But, whereas Judas alone asks the question that begs a positive reply – “Is it I, Lord?” – the story that follows shows all the apostles handing him over. The possible exception is Peter who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant at Jesus’s arrest, but following the arrest, Peter, like Judas, betrays him. “I do not know the man!” he says three times in the the High Priest’s courtyard.

Only Judas at the last supper responds in a way that indicates guilt. “Is it I, Lord?”

Jesus responds, “You have said so.”

A DEEPENING SELF-KNOWLEDGE

The dominant interpretations of Judas’s act of handing Jesus over to the authorities single him out as the one betrayer, the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl. But is it not worth considering that Matthew’s narrative offers every one of us a somber reflection on universal culpability and a window into one’s own denial and lack of self-knowledge?

Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.” – John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 1.

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”

“Is it I, Lord? Is it I?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Tuesday of Holy Week, April 11, 2017.

 

 

John Doe, Judas, and a Secure Promise: Potter’s Field

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Sermon on Judas’s Great Legacy

Text: Gospel of Matthew 27:3-8

Then Judas the traitor, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, repented and took the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and elders of the people. “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man!” he said. But they replied, “How does that concern us? That is your affair.” Throwing down the silver pieces toward the Most Holy Place, he withdrew and went away and hanged himself. Picking up the silver pieces, the chief priests said, “It is unlawful to put this into the treasury, for it is blood money.” Therefore, after coming to an agreement about it, they used the money to buy Potter’s Field as a burying place for foreigners, and to this day that field is known as “The Field of Blood.” – Matthew 27:3-8, Anchor Bible translation by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann

I have always felt that Judas got a bum rap.

The tradition has not treated him well, even according to its own standards. Yes, he bore responsibility for betraying his Lord with a kiss in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. And, yes, he committed suicide. But little or no attention has been paid to the small detail of Judas’ repentance or the depth of the sorrow that led to his suicide.

Matthew’s Judas is repentant. Listen:

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, Judas repented…and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver toward The Holy Place, Judas departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:1-5)

Judas’ suicide, like most if not all suicides, issues from an irrecoverable despair.
He had changed his mind and had tried to turn back, but the dice had already been thrown, as they would be thrown again by the soldiers, rolling the dice over who would get to keep Jesus’ clothing. Not even throwing down the silver pieces at the feet of the religious authorities could change the course of events his betrayal had set in motion.

Some believe the deal Judas cut with the ruling religious authorities was a craps shoot. He had gambled that leading Jesus’s opponents to the secret place where Jesus gathered with his apostles would force Jesus to be the kind of violent revolutionary king he had wrongly supposed he would become. By arranging a face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the Temple police, he imagined he could force Jesus’s hand toward a violent insurrection, and it appears he was not alone in that expectation. For, after Judas had led the temple police to him, Peter had drawn his dagger and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus rebuke the way of violence with an order to put away the sword. As a result, says Matthew, “all the disciples abandoned him and fled.” No one remained to stand with him as the witness to a different course than the way violence and terror. Jesus alone is innocent of the way of blood-taking.

By the time we see Judas throwing down the silver coins at the feet of the temple authorities his head was spinning. His expectation of a grand seizure of power – a kind of coup d’état that would overthrow the Roman colonizers and replace their temple collaborators – had crashed. What does one do when one’s great dream dies? What does one do when a grandiose scheme crumbles?

Either you revise the dream or you fall hopelessly into despair. We might wonder whether perhaps Judas’ biggest mistake was not the betrayal so much as it was not subsequently trusting a divine providence greater than his sin and more powerful than his ability to thwart it. Awash in guilt and sorrow, he threw down what Matthew calls “the blood money” toward the Most Holy Place – that is, the Holy of Holies, regarded as the most sacred of all places in the universe – and took his life.

The “blood money” never went back into the sacred treasury. It was dirty. So instead, the chief priests and the elders, not wanting to be sacrilegious, took the money that had secured Judas’s cooperation in the plot against Jesus – the “blood money” that purchased Jesus’s crucifixion – to buy “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” What is called the “Field of Blood “is also called “the Potter’s Field.” Why?

Why the Potter’s Field?

Matthew does a strange thing. He quotes a text found in the Book of  Zechariah (Zech. 10:12-13) but attributes its source to Jeremiah. Although the Book of Zechariah speaks of the Field of Blood which is also called the Potter’s Field, the text there never explains why it is called a potter’s field.

What would a potter’s field be? A potter uses clay to make pottery. The site referred to in Matthew is known traditionally as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters’ clay. It’s where the potter, the sculpting artist, gets the clay.  It’s an artist’s field. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and of us as the potter’s clay. So perhaps it is called Potter’s Field as a witness to the truth that the John and Mary Doe’s who eventually will land in the pauper’s cemetery belong to the Potter every bit as much as those society regards as worthy of burial in a more distinguished cemetery, a sacred place, if you will.

There is a great irony here in Matthew’s telling of the story: Judas returns the soiled holy money taken from the temple treasury, throws it back at the inner sanctum where only Oz was allowed to enter, the Holy of Holies from which the chief priests pulled the levers intended to keep Judas and Dorothy and every other mystified traveler in line with fear – and that soiled not-so-sacred money buys the Field of Blood for the less than holy, also known as “the Potter’s Field”.

Potter’s Field in New York City

In the City of New York there is a cemetery called Potter’s Field. It’s the place where the indigent are buried. It’s the place where the homeless and the unidentified, the John Doe’s and the Jane Doe’s , are buried by the City of New York. One might call it Pauper’s Cemetery, an act of charity for those who, at the end, like the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay their heads.

Potter’s Field has been moved four times since it was founded early the 19th century.
Today Potter’s Field is managed by the City of New York Department of Corrections. The Department’s website describes its history.

The City of New York has undertaken the responsibility of laying to rest the bodies of those in the City who died indigent or un-befriended, since the early part of the 19th century, when they were interred at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823, these remains were removed to Fifth Avenue and 40 – 42 Streets, Manhattan. When this site was selected for a reservoir, the remains were again removed to Fourth Avenue and 50th Street, this ground being later granted to the Women’s Hospital. In 1857, the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred to Ward’s Island, 75 acres of which were allocated for this purpose.

Today Potter’s Field, the latest place for the internment of the un-befriended poor is on Hart’s Island where it has been since n 1869, next to a prison.

Thirty inmates from the N.Y.C. Reception and Classification Center for Men… are charged with burial and upkeep of the entire cemetery at present. They are carefully interviewed to ascertain that they can perform these services without becoming emotionally upset.

In 1948 the inmates of the prison next door to Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom were without friends and families, appealed to the Warden and offered to build a monument to the un-befriended dead. In cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross, on the other is the word ‘Peace.'”

In my mind’s eye Judas is buried there – on the ground sanctified for the outcasts for whom Christ lived and died. He’s buried in some Potter’s Field where the Potter in mercy welcomes the broken pieces of the pottery He has made, gathers up the shards of broken schemes and grandiose schemes, and takes whatever is left to make something altogether beautiful.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Can I not do with you . . . just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand . . . . [Jeremiah 18:1-6].

Christ’s words – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – are a plea to the Father, the Potter, for his beloved, betraying friend, Judas, and for every other Judas to come down the pike through all the centuries since. By God’s strange providence alone the 30 silver pieces of “blood money” that Judas threw back down toward the Most Holy Place became the unwitting source of the witness to God’s unconditional love and mercy, “Potter’s Field.”

Judas made two mistaken bets. The first ended in Jesus’s execution, the end of a grandiose dream. The second was concluding too early that despair and guilt have the final word – that there was no mercy strong enough to re-claim him.

The learning for us latter-day Judases? Perhaps it is that, although life is full of risk-taking and tragedy, its meaning and destiny are more than a craps-shoot. The destiny of every broken dream and every broken soul is not determined by our gambling or our failures. It’s determined by a secure promise that now and at the end we are in the hands of the Potter Who owns all the clay of Potter’s Field.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2017

America as Babylon

THE BACK STORY: Introduction to Martin Gonzalez Sostre

It was during our weekly Wednesday evening program with prisoners in Dannemora, NY  that I first learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his release.

A year later at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University I delivered a sermon inspired by a fresh reading of the Book of Revelation and what I had learned about Martin. The sermon – “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom” – was  published by The Christian Century in March, 1974.

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to Martin Sostre’s resistance as a political prisoner incarcerated in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, known as “New York’s Siberia” or, as the inmates refer to it, “the Hell Hole of the New York Prison system”.

THE CONTINUING STORY: resistance as worship

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom:

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship God and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

….

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.”

….

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
….
“Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

THE FRONT STORY: 2017

I see more clearly now what I took into the pulpit at St. Lawrence in 1974, magnified a thousand times over in the name of a false patriotism that turns love of country into worship of America. “We’re going to make America great again!”

In the Book of Revelation Babylon is the mythic city that dehumanizes its people, the “bad” city (to use a favorite word of our current president) which people of faith and conscience are called to resist. Worship requires it. Without resistance, worship is dead. So is the U.S. Constitution and a democratic republic.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 1, 2017

Murmuration? You gotta be kidding!

Today I was challenged to write something original on the word murmuration.

My mind immediately went to a biblical text when, after the Hebrew slaves (laborers with no rights), led by Moses and Aaron, have escaped their Egyptian taskmasters (“management” with absolute power), they find themselves in a state of murmuration and a sudden attack of nostalgic longing in the wilderness.

“And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the LORD brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt. – Numbers 14: 1-4, KJV.

A forgetful people is nostalgic for “the fleshpots of Egypt” – the place they had murmured against while bending their welted laboring backs to their taskmasters’ whips – eager to exchange their uncertain future for security.

So today, in the United States of America, we’re in two states of murmuration. One believes we’ve just left Egypt (the regulation society of the Obama and previous Administrations) and now murmurs for security – build the wall, stop the Muslim immigrants, make America great again from the previous Administrations that were, shall we say, Pharaohic? – while the other murmurs that we’re being led by a murmuring madman and Administration that keep us in a constant state to twittering murmuration on the way not to the promised land but to a land led by the Egyptian taskmaster security.

Such is life on this Sunday evening, March 12, 2017. I’m sticking with Moses and Aaron. I’m not so big on the captain or the Egypt that is ahead of us if we keep up the murmuration.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN.

A Time to Weep

Faith and hope come hard sometimes. Four days living next to the abyss brought the wisdom of Ecclesiastes came to mind:

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven . . .  a time to weep, and the time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . .” – Ecclesiastes 3:3-4

I’m not laughing or dancing. I’m weeping and mourning over what’s happening in America. This is the time, the season, for weeping and mourning. Maybe I’m sane after all?

Faith lives next to the abyss.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 25, 2017

 

 

You will be like God

“There is only one sin,” suggested Kosuke Koyama, “Exceptionalism.”

Looking again at the Genesis stories of creation and fall (Gen.1-4) through these eyes seems to go to the heart of the story of humanity and the rest of nature.

The Garden of Eden is a natural paradise. All the creatures are living in harmony within the limits of nature itself.

Then, without explanation, a pernicious idea intrudes. The serpent suggests to the humans that they can become the exception to creaturely existence. “You will be like God! You will be the exception to the rest of us. You will know what no creature can know. You will be like the Creator. You will know good and evil.”

There has been no thought of evil in the Genesis paradise before the sin of exceptionalism breaks the unity of all creatures under the reign of the glad Creator who had declared it all ‘good”.

Only two chapters later, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” [Gen. 6:5-6].

In a similar vein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb, declared, “There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.”

With a wisdom and passion akin to the Genesis writer, Oppenheimer opined after watching the first nuclear explosion, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

One can hope and pray that the wisdom of Genesis, Oppenheimer, and Koyama will turn those with their fingers on the buttons of nuclear arsenals away from the power of the serpent’s deception, and make a sad Creator glad again.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 11, 2017.

Heeding the dream in 2017

Today is a day of searching for wisdom. This period between the November 2016 American election and January 20 presidential inauguration is what Carl Jung called a pause moment. An interruption of the normal to seek a deeper wisdom.

This year two calendars converge. It’s the first day of a new year on the secular calendar, which coincides this year with the First Sunday after Christmas on the Christian liturgical calendar.  This coalescence invites the kind of pause of which Jung spoke. Here’s an excerpt from the assigned Gospel reading for today from the Gospel of Matthew.

 

Now after [the Wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. – Matthew 2:13-16

Several things leaped out from the text this year:

  1. The wise men “tricked” Herod. The Greek word translated here as “tricked” derives from sports – the wise men sported, played, mocked, or made a fool of Herod. Whenever Herod sends out agents for the children, wise people find a way to play him.
  2. These “wise men” – magoi in the Greek text – are foreigners from the East. These foreign visitors with a different religious tradition (astrology) are outsiders to the myths of religious and national exceptionalism. They bring gifts for the Christ child before “returned to their own country by another way,” side-stepping Herod and his agenda.
  3. Joseph’s dream and flight into Egypt reverses every expectation. It was from Egypt that Moses and the Hebrew laborers had fled. Now it to Egypt that they flee from Herod, the puppet king of Roman occupation, who had made a mockery of Passover and Exodus. In this pause of 2017, perhaps the angels will forgive updating the text:”Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Canada (or) Mexico, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the children to deport them.”
  4. The Holy Family become refugees.

Interpreting biblical texts is a dangerous thing, and sometimes the interpretations go a bit to far! Though that be the case, this Gospel of Matthew text for the First Sunday after Christmas and January 1, 2017 offers an interesting opportunity to do what Carl Jung suggested. Engage the pause. Join the wise. Refuse cooperation with agendas that mock the good news. Take time out from the collective madness to be found again by what is holy and sane.

Grace, Peace, and a Blessed New Year,

Gordon