Pardon, please, the posting of an old sermon. It’s the best I can do this morning.
With “thanks, thanks, and ever thanks” to the gentle people of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN — Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), a collection of 49 brief reflections written from inside the furnace of the refiner’s fire; Chaska, MN, July 25, 2020.
Who we shall become is as cloudy as who we have been. Whatever pasts and futures we Americans imagine differently, we know we are in the midst of a national and global crisis. Whether or not we wear a mask, social distance, or march on the streets, we sense it in our bones. Anxiety is everywhere. We cover our eyes and wait to see who and what shall become of us.
Crisis as terrible, wonderful, and . . . .
Crisis – that is, the serious encounter of a man (sic) with exactly that which now threatens his own life, with that which represents, signifies, and warns of his own death – is always terrible, wonderful, eventually inescapable, saving and holy. ― William Stringfellow, A Private and Public Faith.
Re-imagining America begins with facing reality as we experience it, and asking why. No two people experience America the same way, yet all of us experience the same America. How it looks from the shores of Palm Beach and La Jolla or the banks of the Potomac is different from East Harlem where “street lawyer” William Stringfellow worked and bore witness in “Jesus the Criminal” in Christianity and Crisis in 1970:
We who are Americans witness in this hour the exhaustion of the American revolutionary ethic. Wherever we turn, that is what is to be seen: in the ironic public policy of internal colonialism symbolized by the victimization of the welfare population, in the usurpation of the Federal budget—and, thus, the sacrifice of the nation’s material and moral necessities—by an autonomous military-scientificintelligence principality, by the police aggressions against black citizens, by political prosecutions of dissenters, by official schemes to intimidate the media and vitiate the First Amendment, by cynical designs to demean and neutralize the courts.
Yet the corruption of the American revolutionary ethic is not a recent or sudden problem. It has been inherent and was, in truth, portended in the very circumstances in which the Declaration of Independence was executed. To symbolize that, some 30 white men who subscribed to that cause at the same time countenanced the institutionalization in the new nation of chattel slavery, and they were themselves owners of slaves. That incomprehensible hypocrisy in America’s revolutionary origins foretells the contemporary decadence of the revolutionary tradition in the USA. — “Jesus the Criminal,” Christianity and Crisis, June 8, 1970.
Some things remain the same
Some things remain. Some things never go away. Some things that look different are the same. Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas shared more than a name. Both were criminals in Roman custody. One was convicted and executed; the other was released. Both are with us still.
A numbing detachment from others
In 2020, it is no longer only the descendants of slaves in East Harlem who cope with the horrifying sense of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness Cornel West described in Race Matters.
THE PROPER STARTING POINT for the crucial debate about the prospects for black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities. Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards of authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninslessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.
The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys the individual and others. — Cornel West, Race Matters (1994).
Two revolutionary Jesuses are with us still. The prisoner who was released re-builds the haunted house on sand. The other builds a house on rock. We can rebuild the house on shifting sands that wash away our loftiest intentions, or we can build a house on the rock of meaning, hope, and love.
While visiting the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis years ago, Cornel West inscribed Race Matters with a gracious personal charge and benediction.
All these years later, I still don’t know how to fulfill the charge or honor his blessing. I have not stayed strong, I am not, and never have been, prophetic. But the instruction and the blessing are with me still.
The Fourth of July in 2020 is different. You could see it and hear it at Mount Rushmore. The crowd was as colorless as the ones I remember in my childhood. But before they took their seats to sing the national anthem, salute the flag, and look up at the Blue Angels’ aerial display of military power, some of them had heard the chant “Land back!” and seen the fireworks between the police and National Guard and demonstrators whose skin was darker the their’s. On the road to Mount Rushmore they may not have known — or knew but didn’t care — that they were trespassing on stolen property; but they could not remain unaware that some people were not happy. The Lakota had regarded the Black Hills as sacred ground and still does. No one “owned” land before the Nation that celebrated its independence from the British crown saw it as property and stole it by breaking a treaty.
A White Nationalist Revisionist History
Inside the red-white-and-blue bannered stadium, the president targeted the protestors. “If we tear down our history we will not be able to understand ourselves or America’s destiny,” he declared, with no apparent consciousness of longer American history of the Black Hills. “The left wing mob and those practicing ‘cancel culture’ are engaged in totalitarian behavior that is completely alien to American life — and we must not accept it.” Did anyone inside the make-shift stadium catch the irony? Did anyone know that the original proposal for what became Mount Rushmore featured different faces — heroes of the American West, such as Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark, Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse? Did anyone in the white Fourth of July crowd shout “Land back!”?
According to Tony Schwartz, the real writer of Donald Trump’s autobiography, Art of the Deal, the president knows a thing or two about desecration and deception. He is a master at tarnishing those who will not bow to him with a brush dripping paint from the can of his own empty soul.
If Mr. Trump had known American history, he would have flown to the Black Hills with Desmond Tutu to announce formation of an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to lead the nation through the healing process of confession, repentance, and reparation instead of a white nationalist campaign rally that trespassed on another nation’s sacred ground.
The Nation of Sheep
Donald Trump may be ignorant of America’s unvarnished history, but he’s not stupid. Those cheering him at Mount Rushmore most likely never read, or had forgotten, William J. Lederer’s 1961 Best Seller, A Nation of Sheep. “We are acting like a nation of sheep — not a vigorous community of bold, well-informed Americans,” Lederer wrote. We are “uneasy, but too apathetic and uninformed to know why — endorsing any solutions which appear cheap and easy and which come from a source better informed than themselves.” Perhaps the president had read Lederer’s book and decided a nation of sheep was ripe for a shepherd.
The Sheep and the Shepherds
It seems less likely he has read the Parable of the Good Shepherd in the book he hasn’t read –the one he displayed in front of Saint John’s after clearing the demonstrators from Lafayette Square. “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (Gospel of John 10:1-2, NRSV).
The Fourth of July entertainer at Mount Rushmore knows about thievery and sheep. He senses we are uneasy. He is well-schooled in the skill of shearing sheep too apathetic and too uninformed to know why they are uneasy. He knows how prone hungry sheep are to feed on quick and how easily we fall for the illusion that ours is the only sheepfold and that we are exceptional to all other sheep. One need not believe The Art of the Deal‘s ghost writer Tony Schwartz’s claim that Mein Kampf was the only book in Donald Trump’s bedroom to recognize in his bellicose language and behavior the political philosophy of the Strong Man who climbed into a sheepfold by blaming the nation’s problems on black sheep, the unpatriotic “left wing” non-Aryans whose color and history threatened the ideology of racial superiority and national manifest destiny.
Nations which no longer find any heroic solution for such distress can be designated as impotent, while we see the vitality of a people, and the predestination for life guaranteed by this vitality, most strikingly demonstrated when, for a people’s liberation from a great oppression, or for the elimination of a bitter distress, or for the satisfaction of its soul, restless because it has grown insecure – Fate some day bestows upon it the man endowed for this purpose, who finally brings the long yearned-for fulfillment.
Adolf Hitler, “The Strong Man,” Mein Kampf, an autobiographical political manifesto, 1925.
Last night — the Eve of July Fourth 2020 — I thought I saw in the Black Hills a flock of sheep, restless because it had grown insecure, and I heard the distant sound of clippers fleecing an earlier flock.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I closed the Bible, grabbed my COVID-19 mask, and ran out for a Fifth for the Fourth –a fifth named Redemption.
Views from the Edge has been unusually silent after the video of George Floyd’s murder under a white Minneapolis Police Department cop’s knee went viral. The silence has its reasons. Sometimes I rub my eyes to be sure the movement of protest is real. Other times I feel I’ve seen it all before, over and over, but most especially during eight years in the cross-hairs of the police and the community as executive director of the Legal Rights Center, founded by black civil rights leaders and the American Indian Movement.
You can’t write or speak without words, or when the knot in your stomach will only let you moan or groan or scream a primal cry of helplessness, or when your head becomes an atom smasher with too many memories. When words come together to form sentences, paragraphs, and pages that speak more clearly, Views from the Edge will break the silence.
Thank you for your moral support and encouragement. Take good care of others and yourself.
Grace and peace,
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, June 21, 2002.le
At Indian Town Gap National Cemetery, where my mother and father are buried, “Taps” from a single bugle will ring over the silence of the fallen. That is as it should be. No band. No orchestra. No choir. No parades. No “bombs bursting in air.” Just a single bugler breaking the silence “in the dawn’s early light.”
Other tears will fall today for those who did not die or serve in war — 98,035 and still climbing here in the U.S.A. ( ); 345,000+ and climbing worldwide. They were sent to their graves by a deadly virus that knows nothing about wars and borders between nations. You can’t shoot or bomb a virus. Calling the new coronavirus an ‘enemy’ may strike up the band to rally the troops for a crusade, but it’s easily misused to divide the living and the dead. This is a time for Taps, not “”Reveille.”
You will find me where the wounds are
The lock-down to protect ourselves from exposure to COVID-19 led me to the strange encounter between the Crucified-Risen Christ and Thomas — and for all who come to faith in future time: “Blessed are those who have not seen but believe.” The following interpretation is original and speaks for no one else.
Faith: throwing ourselves into the wounds
Caravaggio’s painting of Thomas putting his finger in the wound in the Risen Christ’s side is exquisite, but no painting can capture the strangeness of the invitation to Thomas in The Gospel of John (Jn. 20:26-29).
Translating New Testament Greek texts into English often involves a translator’s decision as to the meaning of a word. The story of Thomas is one such text. Most often βάλε in English becomes ‘place’ or ‘put — a rendering that paints a beautiful word picture of a unique moment of tenderness with Thomas. But “put your hand in my side” avoids the jarring sense of the Greek text — “Bring your hand and βάλε (thrust/throw [it] into) my side.”
The Wounds, the Marks, and the Type
“See the τυπος (marks) in my hands.” τυπος can mean ‘wound’ or ‘mark’ but it has another meaning – ‘type’. A τυπος originally meant a mark created by a blow or impression. Eventually it came to mean a mold or form into which something is shaped. Those who are being molded into the life of the Crucified-Risen Christ are called to behold the marks and throw themselves into the enduring gaping wound in Christ’s side.
The Jesus of Locked Doors
John tells the story found in no other Gospel. He tells it in the present tense, drawing the reader into the scene as it is happening. It is not an event happening only then. It is happening now. “Jesus έρχεται (is coming). Th syntax raises the question of how to render the placement of the word κεκλισμενων (‘locked’). Does the text describe the physical circumstances of an unrepeatable moment? Or does ‘locked’ modify Jesus? “Jesus of locked doors/gates έρχεταιs (is-coming) into the midst of them.” and us?
Becoming Faithful: Encountering God in the Wounds
“Do not γίνου (be becoming) faithless (ἄπιστος) but πιστός (faithful),” Jesus is saying to Thomas, and to all who will never see the historical Jesus directly, that faith and faithfulness are more than mental constructs and belief systems. To follow Christ is to throw ourselves into the gaping wound in Christ’s side all around us. He will meet us there.
The story of Thomas is the final word in the original of the most metaphorical Gospel. It is as though John is leaving us with another way of telling the Parable of the Last Judgment, turning our lives from distant observation and hiding ourselves from the wounds to throw ourselves into the place where we come to faith and faithfulness. “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was in prison and you visited me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me”. (Gospel according to Matthew 25:25-26)
The Life of Compassion
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the Christian life as an ongoing conformation into the pattern of Christ, “the Man for Others.” Writing from prison cell #6 of Tegel Prison where he awaiting state execution two days before the defeat of the German Third Reich, Bonhoeffer wrote the poem that addressed the question of where Christ is today. The three stanzas move from crying out from distress (“when we are sore bested”) to “standing with God in God’s hour of grieving” to God “hanging dead for Christians, pagans alike . . . and both alike forgiving.”
Men go to God when they are sore bestead, Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead; All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead, Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead; Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead, Feeds body and spirit with his bread; For Christians, pagan alike he hangs dead, And both alike forgiving.
There is no life inside locked doors, and if we lock them out of fear or for protection, the Jesus of the Locked Doors will find us and break us free.
Years before the coronavirus pandemic put us in lock down, Tennessee Williams observed that each of us is condemned to solitary confinement for life, and, long before Tennessee Williams the Gospel of Luke spoke of the surprising presence of the risen Christ at the breaking of the bread.
Grace and Peace,
Gordon (May 24, 2020)
Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is a public theologian, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), former Pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska; guest commentator on “All Things Considered” (MPR), MinnPost, Presbyterian Outlook, Star Tribune, Sojourners’ “Blogging with Jim Wallace and Friend” and Day1.org.
Working all week to complete a Views from the Edge autobiographical reflection on faith as I understand it, I laid it aside. This 2014 sermon on faith and patriotism is the best I can do during the the coronavirus pandemic and getting back to Americans’ favorite activity: shopping.
Thanks for dropping by Views from the Edge: To See More Clearly. Grace and peace to you, Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), writing from home in Chaska, Minnesota.