Boundary-breaking God

Featured

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)
+++
“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)
+++
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!

+++

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!”

+++

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).

+++

“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.

 

Our Father who art in heaven…

It began with “Let us pray,” and a one person recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The First Lady was flawless. The crowd went wild.

It wasn’t a worship service. It was something else – a post-election presidential campaign rally not far from the home of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Goofy.

When was the last time you saw a political campaign rally begin with “Let us pray”? And, if you’re a church-goer, when was the last time the Lord’s Prayer was “recited” by a single voice rather than prayed in unison by the entire congregation?

It was a political stunt. Chills ran up and down my spine as I watched the prayer of Jesus being used to rally fellow Christians for purposes other than political purposes antithetical to the purpose of prayer.

Ecce homo -  "Here is the man" Albrecht Durer

“Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man) -Albrecht Durer

Yet, as I watched the First Lady in front of the crowd, it was hard not to feel sympathy for her as well as apoplexy over the abuse of Jesus’s prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” she prayed – a line that presumes a humble dependence upon divine providence. “Give us today the bread we need just for today” is another way to say it. It assumes a kind of poverty. An ultimate dependence.

The New Testament Gospel stories of the wilderness temptation of Jesus begin with the need for bread and the control of it. After forty days of fasting, Jesus is hungry. “If you are the Son of God,” says the Devil in the story, “turn these stones into bread.” Jesus responds that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word (bread) that proceeds from the mouth of God.

The Devil takes him to a high mountain where the hungry Jesus can see all the kingdoms (empires and nations) of the earth. “These can all be yours!” says the Tempter. Jesus replies that the kingdoms of the world do not belong to mortals. “Get behind me, Satan!” Then the Devil leaves him.

Watching the First Lady praying the Lord’s Prayer with the crowd cheering left me, for a moment, wondering what the wilderness must be like for Melania Trump. Despite the smile, it’s hard to imagine a hell farther removed from “Our Father in heaven” than performing the Lord’s prayer all by yourself in an Orlando airport hangar on the way back to living among the gilded stones of a New York penthouse.

“…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 19, 2017

 

Lazarus and “the rich man”

gustave_dore_lazarus_and_the_rich_man

Gustave Dore print of Lazarus and the rich man. (1890)

Jesus told a parable about a man with a name ‘Lazarus’ – a poor man – and a man who has no name – “a rich man”. The parable begins like this:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” [Luke 16:19-20 NRSV]

The scene then shifts from the difference between their earthly circumstances to the imagined differences between their circumstances in an afterlife. Lazarus is soothed in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man is in torment, pleading that if only he had known, he would have lived differently. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them. tell his living relatives. If he can come back to them from the dead, they will understand, change their ways, and avoid the coming judgment.

Abraham’s reply?

“‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ [The rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” [Lk. 16:29-31].

Jesus’ parable is not about the dead. It’s about the living. About how are to live together as neighbors. It’s about waking up to destitution and privilege and heeding the parable’s calling to a society beyond these extremes, a society known for its compassion.

Ask your friends to discuss the news in light of Moses’ response to the rich man. Ask your pastor, priest, or minister how she or he connects the dots with the news in 2016. Ask yourself the question as you listen to the morning and evening news. Ask yourself whether you’re getting the parable or whether the parable got you. Ask God for guidance, for mercy, for change, for transformation of a world of us and them. And give thanks for Jesus, Moses, and the prophets.

An American in a Strange Land

The title of Jim Yardley’s essay in the latest New York Times Magazine –“An American in a Strange Land“–reminds me of William Stringfellow’s book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and the biblical roots of “the strange land” metaphor. But the longer I pondered Yardley’s montage of American life, my heart went back to Jesus’s familiar, albeit misunderstood, invitation to the weary.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
[Gospel of Matthew 11:28-29 NRSV].

On his month-long trip across America in search of answers to what had changed during his 10 year absence, Yardley pieced together the vastly different experiences he encountered into a montage that cries out for further explanation. The montage includes the residents of El Paso, Texas, no more than a long baseball throw across the border from Ciudad Juárez, who disdain Donald Trump’s claims about the border.

Jesus’s invitation is offered to the anxious. The church gets that. Trump gets that. They know we are anxious. Anxiety fills the pews and packs the rallies. Anxiety sends folks running to the gun shops and to the offices of the very same government whose existence they decry for permits to conceal-and-carry or for open carry licenses. Anxiety feeds on itself until the size of it no longer fits within the small confines of a king size bed. Few of us in America fit well in our beds these days.

Churches, gun shops, and politicians who thrive on feeding this frenzy sometimes appeal to Jesus’s call to the weary faithful, ignorant of the specific audience to which Jesus invitation was issued—laborers! The “weary” were the landless poor, ploughing the fields the landowner’s field, driven cruelly like an ox-teams (the word “you” is plural) whose yoke chafes and hurts. Their yoke is anything but “easy”; it is ill-fitting. It chafes. It hurts. The landowner’s yoke allows no rest.The burdens are “heavy” (crushing). ‘They are “heavy-laden.”

“Come to me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Placed in its First Century context, it is an invitation to what many now describe as the underclass. Its audience is not the middle class, and certainly not the upper class. The invitation is issued to the working poor of a top-down economic system that offered cushions to landowners and yokes for everyone else.

In Jesus’s time the line between the landless poor and the wealthy landowners was more obvious perhaps. You were either in the field, so to speak, or you owned the field managers who managed the laborers. But, as I’ve pondered Yardley’s article about the America that strikes him as strangely different, and as I ponder my own anxiety, it strikes me that most of us share a common sense of having become dispossessed.

The pace of change and the nature of change leave us in a state of conscious, subconscious, and unconscious turmoil. The anxiety that is intrinsic to the human condition – we are mortals who die no matter how hard we fight against death —quickly turns in one of two directions. Both directions spiritualize what was not an individual invitation to block out the world’s realities. In the one, we sweep aside its political-economic reference point (the collective ‘you’) and use it to anesthetize ourselves against the unsettling social realities of our time. No one appreciates that more than the one-percent who own the land. In the other, sharing the misappropriation of Jesus’s words as spiritual only, we run to the gun shops and the politicians who feed the frenzy, hoping to defend and secure ourselves against the coming calamity of an Armageddon bought on by our own government’s “rigged electoral system” that favors Muslims, Mexicans, and LBGTQ over Christians, Euro whites, and heterosexuals.

Reading Jim Yardley’s article days before the 2016 election, I realize how anxious and irritable I have become. I’ll go to church this morning hoping for a word that sends me home with a less anxious heart and mind but that also charges to take sides with the landless poor. Our numbers are growing in America. The greatest irony of all is that a billionaire businessman who doesn’t pay federal taxes, views women as “bitches” in heat, exploits cheap foreign labor, out-sources jobs to the countries he decries as America’s cheating enemies, and has Hitler’s speeches in his bedroom is drawing the landless poor to the voting booth of the democracy he says is fake.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Take my yoke upon. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I’m trying, as best I know how, to dismantle the old yoke and the old yoke system and to replace it with the more easy, gentle yoke that better fits us all. In the meantime, we all are foreigners and strangers in a strange land.

-Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN 55318

Sermon – In the Desert

Devon AndersonFirst Sunday in Lent – February 14, 2016
The Rev. Devon Anderson, Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior, MN

The season always begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. The Gospel tells us that no sooner is Jesus baptized in the River Jordan than he is led away into the desert. Led away from the crowds, with his hair still damp, with the words of God still ringing in his ears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ forty days in the desert is a time unlike any other in his life. It is a time in between his anointing by God and the start of his ministry. Before he could start the work he had been given to do, a few things needed to be sorted out. In the words of Frederick Buechner “Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.”

It is only after the forty days are up, only after Jesus is good and parched, good and exhausted, good and depleted that the devil shows up. The devil wasn’t stupid. He allowed Jesus some time wear down, time to exhaust his own resources. Maybe then, the devil thought, Jesus might be open to accepting a little help.

Years ago I spent some time in a desert like the one Jesus struggled in for 40 days. It was during a summer study course at St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem. Part of that program included a week in the Sinai desert exploring sacred sites and camping. As we crossed the border into Egypt, our Bedouin guides met us. Strapped to the top of each of their jeeps were the week “supplies” – a few dusty sleeping bags, some kerosene burners, gallon containers of water, and a small cage of live chickens, one that would be, each night for dinner, killed, plucked, gutted, and roasted. We loaded the jeeps and were off. In no time at all we were deep in the Sinai desert driving over sand and more sand, having left the one-lane highway and all civilization almost immediately.

After several days exploring and camping, we came to a mountainside, and our guides told us that the time had come when we would go our separate ways for awhile. We were to walk no more than 5-10 minutes in any direction by ourselves and spend an hour and a half in silence. At this point, the strident introvert in me leapt for joy – this was going to be awesome. Finally, what I had come for – some uninterrupted, focused, time to breathe and be with God.

I walked out into the craggy desert, found myself a shady rock to sit on and began to pray. I noticed at once was how silent it was. Obviously there were no planes overhead, or cars driving by with their stereo bass level turned up. My classmates had all but disappeared. There was also no wind, or birds or voices. It was so deafening quiet that I thought I could even hear the blood rushing through my body like a hum.

The second thing I noticed was the flies. How could I not? Here I was trying to commune with Jesus, all the while this annoying insect insisted on circling my head,

1

buzzing my ears, and trying with all its might to fly up my nose. The Gospel narratives never mention flies, but after my experience I am convinced they were Jesus’ fourth temptation. “You think you’re so holy? You think you’re the Son of Man? Try this little bugger on for size!”

The third and most important thing I noticed was how quickly I became lonely. Once I found a comfortable place to sit, I cleared my mind, sang all the songs I knew, drank water, fixed my hat, prayed all the prayers I could remember, I listened, I said more prayers, I listened. And after awhile the time was up. I stood up, stretched, and began to make my descent from the craggy rock upon which I had had quite a nice meditation.
But on the way down, I happened to glance at my watch and, good God, only 25 minutes had gone by. What was I going to do now??? How would I fill the next 65 minutes? I began to feel nervous.

Those of you who have spent time in a desert know: there is something about them that have the power to suck out your self-confidence. They are so big, so quiet and empty that one in comparison feels inconsequential and perishable. I was shocked and ashamed by how I had so quickly come to the end of what I could do myself to fill the space and quiet. I had run out of things to say and think and do, and all that remained was kind of an empty, low-grade panic. I did slog it out, and gratefully returned to our camp, live chickens and my annoying classmates never looking so good.

In hindsight, that experience was a bit of an epiphany. For I realized for the first time how I had, up to that point, done my best to avoid coming in contact with that empty, carved out space inside me. I had confused quiet and silence. I had avoided, at all costs, an awareness of where what I can do for myself ends and where my dependence upon God’s grace begins.

There Jesus was, in a desert not that far from the Sinai peninsula. He had just come from his glorious baptism, surrounded by crowds, affirmed and crowned by God – only to be led into a long, lonely time in the desert. During that time, God makes no appearance – there are no voices, descending doves, no reassurance. Only silence and that carved out empty space inside. Over forty days, Jesus gets to the bottom of his own reserves. It is precisely into this empty, hollowed-out place that the devil makes his appearance.

What is important about the devil’s temptations is the theme that ties them together. How the devil tempts Jesus, in three different ways, is with the provocation that Jesus deserves better than what God is giving him. That he, Jesus, has the power to provide for himself what he needs. That he doesn’t, ultimately, need God. Listen to the devil’s taunts: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Feed yourself. “See the kingdoms of the world. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Make your own power, authority. Fashion your own worth. “Throw yourself down from the temple.” Protect yourself. With each taunt the devil dares Jesus to prove who he is by acting with the ultimate power of a god instead of a man. And with each taunt, Jesus resists, replies with an emphatic “no.” “I will not assume to provide what only God can give.”

2

Lent is a time unlike any other set aside for us to wrestle with the very same temptations set before Jesus. We are all vulnerable to the viral illusion that we can, ultimately, provide for ourselves. We are vulnerable to the idea that if we make enough money and invest wisely, we will be able to feed ourselves – provide all the sustenance and nourishment we will ever need. That we can, through our sheer determination, obtain what we need to fill ourselves in every way, buy what we need to make ourselves whole. We are vulnerable to the temptation that if we advance and distinguish ourselves in our professions, speak articulately, exhibit learnedness and intellectual capacity that we can win for ourselves authority and respect. That it is entirely up to us to create our own value and worthiness. We are vulnerable to the idea that if we buy the right car or car seat, install a home security system, live in the nice neighborhoods, put our kids in the right schools, if we keep our cholesterol down and choose the best health plan and doctors that we have the power to inoculate ourselves from the sadness and pain that are part of being human.

In her book, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith, Nora Gallagher equates these temptations to fantasies, illusions that suck out our vitality, that keep us from discovering God’s rich reality. “To come to terms with illusion,” she writes, “is one of the great jobs of our lives: to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is a narcotic and what is food. It is dangerous, wrenching, and unavoidable. The seductive call of the Sirens was so compelling Odysseus lashed himself to his mast. In the desert, Jesus fought for his life. What is asked of Jesus is what is asked of us: that we give up illusion – its false promises and its addicting inertia – and come to our senses. That we, as Vaclav Havel would say, ‘live within the truth.’”

The devil’s agenda is to convince us that we can go it alone, that God is to us a pleasurable elective – something interesting and provocative to ponder, a presence that offers solicit in time of need. But Lent challenges us, right off the bat, to question ourselves. It is, after all, the season that derives its name from the old English word, lenten, meaning “spring.” It is not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime of the soul. Forty days to cleanse our system of the illusion that we are in control, that what we ultimately need – to nourish our souls, prove our inherent worth, guard our lives — we can provide for ourselves. Forty days to open our eyes to the one holy and gracious God, by whose mercy alone we live and move and have our being. AMEN.

 

3

Living Among the Wild Beasts

Samuel Clemons (“Mark Twain”) wrote in his autobiography words akin to the Gospel of Mark’s briefest description of Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness:

“With the going down of the sun my faith failed and the clammy fears gathered about my heart. Those were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with the bitterness of death. In my age as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse.

None of us is ever quite sane in the night. Our faith fails. The clammy fears gather in our hearts. Despair descends. It is into this primitive night of the soul that Jesus enters when Mark describes Jesus’s wilderness temptation with one line:

“He was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.”

Christ in the Wilderness -Kramskoi

Christ in the Wilderness -Kramskoi

In Mark’s Gospel there is none of the later Gospel’s three temptations. Jesus simply enters that frightening solitude Gerard Manley Hopkins described as a miserable soul “gnawing and feeding on its own miserable self.”

The wild beasts of Mark and of the Hebrew Scripture are symbols representing the violence and arrogance of nations and empires: the lion that threatened David’s sheep; the lion with wings and a bear gnawing insanely on its own ribs in Daniel’s dream; a leopard and a dragon with great iron teeth destroying everything in its way. The beasts of Daniel and the Hebrew Scripture symbolize the deepest threats, threats to human wellbeing and existence itself. In Daniel’s dream, when the Ancient of Days takes his judgment seat and gathers the nations (wild beasts), they are as nothing before him, but “of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Like Samuel Clemons, with the going down of the sun [our] faith fails and the clammy fears gather about my heart.

In his book Man Before Chaos Dutch philosopher-theologian Willem Zuurdeeg argues that all philosophy and religion is born in a cry. Whether the great philosophies of Plato or Aristotle or Hegel, whether Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity or what we arrogantly describe as ‘primitive’ religions; whether the political philosophy of Western democracy or Islamic theocracy or one or another economic theory – capitalist, socialist, communist, or communitarian – all philosophy and religion is born in a cry for help. It is the primal cry of human vulnerability, our  contingency, our finitude, our mortality. It is the cry for order, protection and meaning in the face of the chaos without and within.

Separated from all social structure and from all the answers that express or muffle the cry, removed from civilization and all distraction – no computers, no video games, no reading material, no play stations, no TV, no artificial noise, nothing unreal to distract him – in the wilderness of time, “he was with the wild beasts.”

“He was with the wild beasts” is a kind of cliff notes for Jesus’ entire life and ministry. He would dwell among the wild beasts – the unruly principalities and powers that defy the ways of justice, love and peace.  He lived and died among the wild beasts that mocked him at his trial – “Hail, King of the Jews!” – stripped him of his clothing, plaited a crown of thorns believing they had seen the end of him. But after the beasts of empire had torn him to shreds, he become for us the crucified-risen King whose love would tame us all.

There are times for each of us when the beasts are all too real, moments when faith falters, nights in the darkness when despair gnaws and paws at us, and hope has all but disappeared.

A young woman sits in the Atlanta airport. She is returning home from a year of study abroad. All flights have been delayed because of a storm. She is anxiously awaiting the final leg of her journey home. But home as she had known it no longer exits. Her mother and father have separated. Her father has entered treatment for alcoholism. She has entered a wilderness not of her own choosing. The beasts are tearing her apart. Her ordered universe has fallen apart.

She goes to the smoking lounge to catch a smoke. A stranger, her father’s age, sits down. He jolts her out of her fog. “Do you have the time?” he asks. As strangers are sometimes wont to do, they begin to talk. Unaware of her circumstances, he tells her that he is a recovering alcoholic, a former heavy drinker whose drinking was destroying his marriage until his wife became pregnant. The impending birth of his daughter snapped him into treatment and sobriety. “I thought I was going to die,” he says, “but it was the beginning of a resurrection, a whole new life.”

The young woman begins to feel a burden lifting. The stranger finishes his cigarette and disappears. She never gets his name.

The loudspeaker announces her flight’s departure. She boards her flight, and as the plane rises through the clouds, she finds herself momentarily sandwiched between two sets of clouds – one below, one above – and the space between is filled with rainbow light, a world whose grandeur and grace exceed all reasons for despair. She is strangely calm in the face of what lies ahead. A sense of peace descends. She is sure that the man has been given to her as a gift. She has been with the wild beasts. An angel has ministered to her.

During these 40 days and nights of Lent we live more consciously with the wild beasts, praying that the angels of our better nature will minister to us in the wilderness of time, dreaming with Daniel and Jesus of the Ancient of Days taking his judgment seat and gathering the nations. They are as nothing before him, but of his kingdom there shall be no end.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2016.

Sermon on most divisive Christian claim

“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me [Jesus]” is sometimes used as a billy club, as in, “if you believe, you’re ‘in’ – if you don’t, you’re ‘out’.” According to Matthew Myer Boulton, the statement has nothing to do with belief. Read in context, this line in the Gospel According to John is the opposite: an assurance of divine comfort and inclusion.

Matthew (“Matt”) Myer Boulton, President of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, is the son of Wayne and Vicki Boulton, friends of Gordon and Steve for 51 years. Matthew’s leadership is a source of great joy. He is the author of God Against Religion and Life in God.

Making the nation great again?

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_037

Prisoners exercising in the Yard – Vincent Van Gogh

Might Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of the Prisoners Exercising have been inspired by conflicting biblical texts, like the ones read in many churches two Sundays ago?

The reading from the Book of Nehemiah tells the story of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

In the absence of leadership, the people’s confidence – their sense of national destiny – has been shaken. The citizens have intermarried. They’ve welcomed and married foreigners. Now Jerusalem’s exiled leaders have returned to restore the nation’s religious identity, to rebuild a nation that has lost its way. Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah, the governor, are rallying the people to make the nation great again.

Sound familiar?

Jesus, Ezra, and Nehemiah shared a common faith. They were children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their lives were rooted in Torah. Each interpreted Scripture in his own time, according to his own lights. Ezra and Nehemiah re-built the wall. Jesus doesn’t like walls.

Jesus returns to his home town synagogue in Nazareth. He opens the scroll to the Book of Isaiah, and selects the reading announcing good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.

There is nothing about building walls. Nothing about isolation. Nothing about privilege. Nothing about rebuilding the nation. Nothing about the nation at all. Nothing about building the walls of a self-imposed penitentiary.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. – Luke 4: 16-18

No more prison. No more wall. No more other! Every Other is a BrOther. Otherwise, we’re all exercising in the prison yard.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Jan. 31, 2016

Verse – Packin’ heat for Jesus

“Pack some heavy heat, Boys,”
said Jesus to the Apostles
on his way to pray in the
Garden of Gethsemane

and off again to the Mount
of Olives – that liberal
haunt with olive branches,
doves, and sh-t like that –

“Conceal and carry, Boys,”
he’d said, in the Upper Room
where that sissy John
laid against his breast –

“Get your guns, Boys,
the Fags, Commies, and
Mohammad-lovers are
comin’ to kill our faith.

“You have heard that it was
said, ‘love your neighbor’,
but I say, take ‘em out, Boys,
we’re ‘the home of the brave’.”

by J. Feelwell, Re-imagining Jesus, Crusaders Press, Lynchburg, VA, Dec. 9, 2015

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN – Satire Press :-), Dec. 9, 2015.

Dueling Presidents: Obama and Falwell

President Obama speaks from the Oval Office during prime time, seeking to calm a jittery nation following terrorist attacks abroad and in California. I questioned the wisdom of devoting so much of a speech on national security to domestic relations with our own Muslim neighbors …until this morning I watched Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, urging his students to apply for conceal-and-carry permits so that they could “end those Muslims.”

http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/americas/74836735/us-college-president-tells-students-to-carry-guns-to-end-those-muslims

The media describe Liberty University as “a leading evangelical Christian college” in Virginia. It’s not. It’s a poor excuse for a university or college, a right-wing fundamentalist school led by the son of Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, an arch-conservative fundamentalist religious-political movement to take back the country from liberals… you know…people like Jimmy Carter.

Three days after telling his students to buy guns and on the eve of President Obama’s Sunday evening address to the nation, Falwell tweeted that his reference to “those Muslims” was meant only for those Muslims who commit acts of terror. But Jerry, Jr. is not stupid. The deafening applause from the Liberty auditorium was still ringing in his ears.

President Obama and President Falwell both know we are shivering. Only the non-preacher President represented the spirit and ancient counsel of Baruch: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God” [Baruch 5:1-9; 2nd Century BCE].

We can freeze ourselves to death wearing living in the garment of sorrow, affliction, and fear. Or we can take it off to put on the warm garment of beauty – the glory of God shining in mutual consolation, hope, and steadfast determination to live in peace with our neighbors.

If you can imagine Jesus telling his students (disciples) to apply for conceal-and-carry permits, pack some heat, and put an end to anyone, you’re making that Jesus up. You don’t get to make Jesus up in your own image.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’  But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you. If you do this, you will be true children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on good people and on evil people, and he sends rain to those who do right and to those who do wrong. If you love only the people who love you, you will get no reward. Even the tax collectors do that. And if you are nice only to your friends, you are no better than other people. Even those who don’t know God are nice to their friends. So you must be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Gospel According to Matthew 5:43-48, NCB.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister, would-be disciple of Jesus, Chaska, MN, Dec. 7, 2015