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.

 

The Prison Church of the Good Thief

The Church of the Good Thief, Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, NY

The Church of the Good Thief, Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, NY

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Within the forbiddingly high walls of the NY State Prison in Dannemora, New York stands a remarkable structure: The Church of St. Dismas (the Good Thief).

The prison is now known as “Clinton Correctional Facility” but to the inmates across the state of New York it is known as “the Hell Hole” of the New York prison system – “New York’s Siberia” – because it is cold in the northeast corner of New York. The inmates of Attica think of Dannemora the way people on the outside the system think of Attica – the most dreaded place in the New York prison system.

The Church of St. Dismas was built by the prisoners between the years of 1939 and 1941 as a witness to God’s presence within the walls of prison. It bears witness to the thief whom the crucified Jesus, also condemned by the State as a criminal, pardoned and promised Paradise.

On the Wednesday evenings between 1974 and 1977 I drove across the Adirondacks from our home in Canton, New York to Dennemora where a group of churches, college students, and university faculty put on programs and visited with prisoners. The times with the inmates confirmed what I had read in Kai Erickson’s incisive book, Wayward Puritans: a Study in the Sociology of Deviance , in which he argued that society creates and maintains deviance as a means to identifying itself as the opposite of “the other”.

I often found among the prisoners in the Hell Hole the voice of “the good thief” next to Jesus on his cross and gave thanks for a greater encompassing mercy.

The two-hour treks across the mountains to and from Dannemora became times of clarified perception about the folly of the presumption of righteousness among the free and the essential oneness between the prison “yard” and the yards we mowed back home in Canton where the walls were invisible.

Later I learned the Taize Community (France) chanted prayer of “the penitent thief’ set to music: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom”.

April 16, 2012