1 John 4:18
This week, in my sermon, I’m answering a question about God from our very own Craig Wood. Craig asks:
“We read in the Bible ‘trust God’ and ‘love God’ while also reading ‘fear God.’ I understand how trusting God and loving God work in our faith, but how does fear work in our faith? How does one trust God and love God while at the same time fearing God?” Craig, that’s a great question.
We’ve all experienced fear. When I think of my own life, I remember the experience of being separated from my mom in a department store when I was very young and not being able to find her and running through the aisles terrified.
And I remember (a little older, but still way too young to be watching an R-rated movie) seeing just a few minutes of the movie Aliens and having bad dreams for months that one of those alien sucker things was going to clamp onto my face and lay an alien egg in my stomach.
When I was 15-years-old I was lying on an operating table about to have major back surgery after a terrible injury and I was so, so scared that I wouldn’t wake up again or that if I did that I wouldn’t walk again.
I remember hiking through the woods one night without a flashlight and a bat hit me in the face and got stuck there fluttering it’s leathery bat wings all over my head and (I am not ashamed to say) I screamed louder than I’ve ever screamed in my life.
I remember my wife, Bonnie Mohan, being rushed to the emergency room after giving birth because her bleeding wouldn’t stop. And for one hour I was never more mortally afraid.
And I remember learning about my mom’s stage-four cancer diagnosis a little more than a year ago. And I remember the sort of low-grade fear that stuck with me in the background for these last thirteen months before she died.
We’ve all experienced fear. And we all have things that we’re afraid of. But is this the way we’re supposed to feel about God? Aren’t we supposed to love and trust God?
Our final reading this morning from 1 John makes it pretty clear that fear and love just don’t mix. John says that if you’re leading a good life out of fear that God is going to punish you in this life or send you off to hell in the next life, then you haven’t yet found perfection in love. Lead your best, most beautiful life because you love God and because God loves you. Leave the fear behind. Don’t be afraid!
And when we read our second piece of scripture this morning from Exodus, we see there that often repeated exhortation from scripture, “Do not be afraid.” But it’s a little strange because Moses says, “Do not be afraid because God has only come to put the fear of God upon you.” That seems a little contradictory. How can you simultaneously tell someone not to be afraid and to feel the fear of God?
So, we’re starting to get a picture here that maybe the fear that we’re most used to—bats, trips to the ER, ghost stories, pandemics—that fear is not the same kind of fear we’re supposed to feel about God. But what kind of fear isn’t fear? That doesn’t really make sense, does it?
Well, language is a complicated thing and translation from one language to another is extremely complicated and translation from an ancient language (like Hebrew) to a modern language (like English) is very extremely complicated. Just imagine a few thousand years from now someone who speaks a language that is a descendant of Mandarin Chinese tries to translate this phrase from English that we’re all probably writing down in our diaries lately: “I was hoping that 2020 was going to be an awesome year. Instead, it turned out to be really awful.” Now, if you’re translating that, what do you do with the fact that the words “awe-some” and “aw-ful” look like they should mean pretty much the same thing. They’re both adjectives derived from the word “awe,” but one means something that’s really great and one means something that’s really bad. And maybe that’s because an experience of awe can sometimes be magical and wonderful and revelatory and empowering. And it can sometimes be overwhelming, overpowering, earth-shattering, and even a little scary.
Ancient Hebrew didn’t really have a separate word for awe like we do in English. Instead, the words in Hebrew that we translate into English as fear and afraid had a broader definition and did more work than the word “fear” does in English. So, maybe instead of looking for a fear that isn’t fear we need to be looking for a fear that is more than just plain old fear. Remember, the ancient Hebrews didn’t leave behind dictionaries, right? So, we have to figure out the meanings of words from their context. So, what is this broader definition of fear like?
Well, let’s look at our other scripture selections from this morning. Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And the poetry of the two lines together tells us that the fear of God is related to knowledge and to understanding.
Our reading from Isaiah makes a prophecy about a leader who will arise whose “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” So, this fear can feel delightful, which means we’re really going to have to stretch our imaginations on this one. What kind of fear could feel good?
And finally from our Psalm we hear that God is with those who fear God, God is with those who hope in God’s steadfast love. The way ancient Hebrew poetry worked, it didn’t have line breaks, or rhymes, or meter like we have. Instead, a typical feature of ancient Hebrew poetry is one line following another. The first line makes a statement and then the second line repeats that statement in different words or expands upon or comments upon it some way. So, the poetry from this Psalm is telling us that the fear of God and hope in God are not two different things. The part of God that makes us feel the fear of God and God’s unfailing love are not two separate things.
So, the fear of God is a “fear” that expands your mind, deepens your soul in wisdom, and raises your understanding. If you’re doing it right, the fear of God can be a positive—even a delightful—experience. And the fear of God and the love of God are not contradictory things the way that regular fear and God’s perfect love are contradictory.
So, I wonder: Have you ever had an experience similar to that—an experience that could have been mistaken for fear, that was maybe living across the street from fear as it arrived in your life, but was ultimately something much greater?
On March 31, 2004 I was hiking the Appalachian Trail near the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina when a late-season snowstorm hit. I was hiking by myself up and over a mountain called Max Patch which is known as a “bald mountain” because for reasons no one is really sure about there are no trees on the top of this mountain. For about a mile you hike through an open meadow at the summit of Max Patch. The snow was really heavy and wet, even under the cover of the trees, but when I reached the tree line near the top at over 4,500 feet of elevation the snowstorm became a blizzard.
But something was compelling me to keep going. But with knee-deep snow and fifteen feet of visibility at best and no trees to mark the trail, I got lost in the blizzard on the top of this mountain by myself miles and miles from civilization. As I looked around me and saw nothing but blowing snow and fading light, I felt a little afraid up there all by myself. But then I got a hold of myself and I reminded myself, I had plenty of warm, dry clothes with me, I had water, I had food, I had a flashlight, I had a gas stove, I had a tent, I had a dry sleeping bag, I wasn’t going to die or even be particularly chilly or uncomfortable no matter how momentarily lost I was.
So, what was I feeling standing out there lost in the snow? I was feeling my own smallness and vulnerability. I was feeling my place in the world. I was feeling gratitude that despite my vulnerability, I was going to be safe. I was feeling a sort of awe at the ability of nature to transform the world and overpower me. And I was feeling exhilarated that I had made my way to this place to witness it all.
Maybe all that I was feeling up on the mountain was something like the kind of “fear” we’re supposed to feel about God. When I have allowed myself to feel the presence of God like I felt that snowstorm on top of Max Patch, when I have blocked out the distractions and focused my attention on God’s presence as fully as I was focused on that isolating snowstorm, I have felt the “fear” of God. It hasn’t been a cringing, or a crying, or a shaking-with-horror kind of fear. It hasn’t been a fear that is afraid of danger or punishment. On the contrary, it is a fear that knows I am completely safe.
The fear of God is the feeling of coming into God’s Presence, into the Presence of Mystery, into the Presence of something so much greater than ourselves, into the Presence of the Creator of the Universe and the Creator of our own selves, into the Presence of pure and perfect love given to us freely no matter what failings or sins we carry with us.
Fearing God is about acknowledging and feeling God’s Presence with awe and reverence that might lead you to fall down on your knees, meeting in your own heart the perfection of love that fills you and surrounds you.
So, Beloved, don’t be afraid to fear God.
(and Cosmos: Possible Worlds)
This summer I’ve been preaching to you on my summer reading. I picked four sciencey books and this week I’m preaching on the last one: “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” by Ann Druyan.
Druyan is the widow and writing partner to the world-famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan and Druyan were cowriters of the original Cosmos, which was a PBS television series and book. The series premiered in 1980. I remember watching some of it as an 80’s kid and being absolutely transfixed by it. It was this potent brew of science, imagination, awe, wonder, storytelling, and a compelling synthesizer-infused theme song by the same guy who did Chariots of Fire.
So, I was really excited to see what this latest installment of the series would hold. Because right now with everything we’ve got going on I need a little inspiration for the future and to believe that another world is possible. And I wasn’t disappointed. In a time of extremely low self-esteem on the part of humanity, when almost every vision of our future in popular culture is dystopian, Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a soaring achievement of both urgency and optimism.
The book squarely faces our disenchantment with the 21st century. In the 80s when I watched the original Cosmos many of us thought that we’d all have flying cars, robot butlers, and a colony on Mars by now. Instead, we face tremendous problems over basic human rights and equality, healthcare and public health, political discourse and enfranchisement, and (to top it all off) a global warming climate catastrophe. But Druyan reminds us that these problems will be solved (as they have been solved in the past) by people who have awakened to the beauty, mystery, and sacredness of the universe and who are moved by that awakening to act in the best interests of humanity and the world we live in.
Many people believe that spiritual awakenings and turning your life around are the realm of religion. Druyan believes that science is what will lead us out the darkness of the current moment and into the light of a better future. Are science and religion so different from one another (and they are different) that they have to be at odds in our lives and in our culture? Or can they coexist and maybe even cooperate?
The science writer Steven Jay Gould recounted a typical story about the feeling on behalf of some religious people (and now some of the “new atheists”) that science and religion are not compatible. An undergrad at Harvard came to him and said, “I am a devout Christian and have never had any reason to doubt evolution, an idea that seems both exciting and particularly well documented. But my roommate, a proselytizing Evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist. So tell me, can a person believe both in God and evolution?" Gould, who’s an agnostic Jew, was put in the strange position of having to reassure this young man that there was no inherent contradiction between Christianity and science—that fundamentalist creationism is the exception, not the rule in Christianity.
Gould goes on to say that the supposed conflict between science and religion can be eliminated by understanding a term he invented: “nonoverlapping magisteria.” By which he means that both science and religion have their separate realms over which they have authority to teach. Facts and theories belong to science. Meaning, morality, and values belong to religion. And never the twain shall meet. They do not overlap.
But nonoverlapping magisteria is not the sense that you get from reading or watching any book or show in the Cosmos series. Is it possible for science to get spiritual? I think that Ann Druyan would say, yes, for lack of a better word, science is spiritual.
She quotes Albert Einstein as one of the inspirations for the book. At the 1939 World’s Fair Einstein said, “If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially, but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of people.” This isn’t just about facts and theories. This is about meaning. It’s a “spiritual” mission to empower science to affect people with the same profundity that art does. Or, you could say, with the same depth of meaning that religion does. If science can get spiritual in its goals, I wonder if it’s possible for spirituality to be more (for lack of a better word) “sciencey.”
Science didn’t exist at all at any time that any of the books of the Bible were written. So, it’s difficult to turn to the Bible for a defining statement on how we should relate to science as Christians. But the burning bush from our scripture reading this morning may be a way of exploring this idea. One way that some Christians dismiss thinkers like Druyan and Sagan is to say that the universe, all of Creation, is sinful and fallen and impermanent and will ultimately all be wiped away by God and the good Christians will be whisked off to heaven to live a purely spiritual existence.
But the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart emphasizes the Biblical ideas of incarnation, resurrection, and that God’s salvation will be a salvation of the whole world (all of Creation). He points to the image of the burning bush as the way that our spiritual ancestors understood the universe, how it was made, and how important it is. The image of the burning bush is a metaphor for God and God’s creation: ordinary matter, fully infused with the glory of God, lit up like a divine fire, but not at all consumed, not destroyed. Holy! Holy ground! All around us. Everywhere we look. No division between the sacred and the profane.
The idea is that God made the universe and will save all of it, so our understanding of God can’t be limited to pie-in-the-sky and it can’t be limited to “spiritual” concerns. Because God’s plan for all of creation is and has always been a physical and a “spiritual” plan. And so when we understand the physical facts of God’s creation, we understand more about God. And we are better enabled to think about meaning and values.
Science is simply another a way (to use James’ language from our second scripture reading) of looking into the mirror of God’s Word and seeing ourselves. And as James said, if we look into that reflection and then walk away and don’t let it affect how we live, don’t let it turn us around, turn us to action—we’re lost.
So, here’s the situation as I see it: Science is on a spiritual quest to save humanity, save the planet, and understand the deepest mysteries of God’s creation. Some Christians have rejected that project all together. They don’t believe it matters. But there is no contradiction between being a devout Christian and being inspired by the spirit of the mission of science. Not because of nonoverlapping magisteria, in my opinion, but precisely because science is spiritual and spirituality cannot be divorced from facts or from the great human project of creating a better tomorrow by using the best knowledge and tools available to us. Christianity that stands in the way of learning and facts, risks becoming anachronistic and irrelevant. Christianity that embraces the best of science as a partner says to the whole world: science brings us closer to understanding God and closer to a better future.
I took a long five-month hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2004 right before I started seminary. And I remember meeting a hiker at a shelter one evening and talking with her about religion. And she asked me what I thought of Buddhism. I don’t remember my answer exactly, but I remember to my embarrassment saying things like, “Well, Christianity as all about incarnation and passion and Buddhism is all about emptiness and disengagement.” Now, there might be some truth there, but my tone was dismissive and my attitude was superior and surprise, surprise, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I had barely studied Buddhism and I had never dialoged with a Buddhist.
When I arrived at seminary, one of my professors described herself as a Buddhist-Christian. I began studying Buddhism and interfaith dialogue. I started reading Buddhist texts, doing Buddhist meditation, and talking to real Buddhists. And that’s when I realized that these two religions—so different from one another—were not incapable of communicating. And as my understanding and experience of Buddhism grew, and the more deeply I engaged its values and worldviews, the more I felt my Christian faith expanding by the dialog, by the challenges, and by the very different but very valuable perspectives. For instance, I found my way to the ancient tradition of Christian contemplative prayer through the Buddhist practice of Zen meditation.
The same kind of dialogue and collaboration are possible between the religions and the sciences. Will science challenge what we think we know about faith, spirituality, values, and meaning? Of course it will. If the Perseverance rover, launched to Mars last month, discovers evidence that there was once early life on Mars (which is one of its objectives) that will radically change our worldview, our idea of life and our idea of ourselves, and our idea of God and what God is up to in this universe of ours. We will be challenged. But that’s OK. Our faith can handle it. And the rewards for thinking scientifically about our world will be a deeper understanding of God and God’s creation.
I believe in the biblical vision that God’s plan for salvation is a plan for all creation. I believe that the rocks, the trees, the animals, the planet, and the stars are all important and they’re all covered with God’s fingerprints. I believe that when we understand Creation—from the billions of lightyears of the observable universe to the four dimensions of spacetime, to the uncertainty of the quantum realm—we are better equipped to stand in the presence of the God who made and sustains and redeems them all, we are better equipped to worship that God, and we are better equipped to undertake the scientific and spiritual project of making a better future.
(and The Soul of an Octopus)
Every two weeks this summer I’ve been preaching on a book from my summer reading list. You’re all invited to read along and to join me in a discussion group before I preach on the book. This summer I’ve picked four sciencey books and the book I’m preaching on this week is “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery.
Sy Montgomery is a literary naturalist who has written about all kinds of animals—tigers, and moon bears, and a pig named Christopher Hogwood, O my! Her books aren’t dry biology texts, they’re zoology mixed with memoir. The Soul of an Octopus isn’t about octopuses in general, it’s about four specific octopuses—Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. It’s about Montgomery’s relationships with them. And it’s about the aquarists, the marine biologists, the divers, the student volunteers, and the aquarium janitorial staff who also bond with these octopuses. It’s a book about how human lives and work and hearts intersect with octopuses.
There’s Bill, who’s the main aquarist at the New England aquarium and he can smell fish stress through glass and he carries great personal stress worrying about the welfare of his beloved octopuses. There’s Wilson, a retired engineer who builds the octopuses challenging toys and who visits with them even while his wife is in hospice. There’s Anna, a high school junior with Asperger’s who’s kept fish tanks since she was two-years old and who’s processing the suicide of her best friend in the company of the octopuses. And there’s Danny, who has a developmental disorder and wants nothing more than to meet a real, live octopus—and he gets his chance!
On the surface, it may seem incredible that human beings can bond with these eight-armed, underwater aliens. Human beings diverged from octopuses on the tree of life more than half a billion years ago. Instead of fingers, an octopus’ eight arms are each covered in hundreds of suckers that can exert thousands of pounds of force. If an arm gets bitten off, it can grow back. To swim they don’t use their arms. Instead they suck water up into their head and squirt it out a little funnel to propel them through the ocean on a jet of water. They taste and smell through every inch of their skin—even their eyelids. They have a beak for a mouth like a parrot’s beak inside their armpit and their bite is poisonous. Their brain is distributed through their body and they have more neurons in their arms than they have in their heads. They have three hearts and blue blood. They can squeeze themselves through a hole just a few inches wide. They can change colors and often do to express their mood. But they can also camouflage their skin by changing its color and texture to perfectly match their surroundings. If they’re threatened, they can squirt out a cloud of dark ink. They are solitary. They are cannibalistic. And they only live a few years.
As Montgomery writes, “Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.” It’s hard to imagine creatures more different than us. But octopuses are also smart, curious, and playful. They enjoy solving problems and puzzles and are renowned escape artists. Octopuses appear to be self-aware and to understand that other creatures have minds and motivations separate from their own. Each octopus has its own unique and varied personality. Their complex behaviors are more than instinctual and suggest that they have something like thoughts and feelings. When you look them in the eye, it feels like someone is in there looking back at you. And the people who care for octopuses in aquariums or meet them in the wild can feel deeply emotionally connected to them.
Montgomery learns to scuba dive in the book so she can meet octopuses in the wild on coral reefs. On one diving trip to Tahiti she goes to worship one Sunday morning at an eight-sided church. It has eight sides for a reason—it was built on the site of a much older temple to the local octopus god. And this is what she writes about the experience:
“The service is conducted in Tahitian, a language I don't understand. But I understand the power of worship, and the importance of contemplating mystery—whether in a church or diving a coral reef. The mystery that congregants seek here is no different, really, from the one I have sought in my interactions with Athena and Kali, Karma and Octavia. It is no different from the mystery we pursue in all our relationships, in all our deepest wonderings. We seek to fathom the soul.
“But what is the soul? Some say it is the self, the ‘I’ that inhabits the body; without the soul, the body is like a lightbulb with no electricity. But it is more than the engine of life, say others; it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Soul is the fingerprint of God.
“Others say that soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity. One calls soul ‘the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.’ Perhaps none of these definitions is true. Perhaps all of them are. But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too.”
The traditional Christian view of things is that, yes, God created all living things, but God created humans to be different and we’re the only living things who were given souls. Obviously, we are different from other animals—we have science, technology, language, culture, literature, art, and religion. But our growing understanding of evolution, genetics, and animal behavior forces us to ask if the difference between human beings and animals is one of kind or one of degree. Are humans and animals two different kinds of things on totally different trajectories? Or are humans with our incredible brains capable of reshaping the planet just one interesting branch on a tree of life full of complex, interesting creatures—and sometimes maybe even thinking, feeling creatures.
The Bible says that God created human beings in God’s own image. But it doesn’t say exactly what that means. And it doesn’t say that other animals or other parts of Creation don’t also reflect God’s image in some way. I believe we were created in God’s image, but I also think that God’s image is way bigger than us. Could the octopus be another reflection off another piece of God’s great big mirror?
If science is telling us that animals are more like us than we’ve previously wanted to admit, is it possible this similarity could extend beyond the boundaries of what science can tell us and go all the way to the soul? Is it possible that the belief that we’re the only ones with souls is just another example of misguided human exceptionalism—like thinking that the Earth is the center of the solar system?
Our scripture reading this morning says that on the sixth day God breathed the breath of life into the dust of the ground and the man, Adam, became a living soul. The word being translated as “soul” is the Hebrew word nephesh.
And our scripture reading says that on the fifth day God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm... And the word translated into English twice here as “creature” is the Hebrew word nephesh, the very same word translated as “soul” when it was referring to Adam. So, even when we translate the Bible, we sometimes like to separate ourselves from the animals.
Of course, we still haven’t defined what a soul is. Is it a supernatural part of you that is eternal and flies off somewhere when you’ve died? Is it your conscious experience living inside the phenomena of your material brain? Is it the great struggles and questions of your life? Or is it the simple enjoyment of a sunny day or the simple satisfaction of offering kindness to a stranger? Or is it a little bit of all these things?
I think sometimes words like “soul” and “spirit” can be too big to define. You could talk about them all day, you could write whole books about them, and the more you talk, the more you write, the bigger they grow. Sometimes, soul is just something you need to feel—feel without words: know, experience.
Sometimes, I just want to pray silently. And in my silent prayers I sometimes feel God more fully, more accessibly than I do when I’m preaching a sermon. All of God can be present in silence. But a sermon can only contain the tiniest little reflection of God. I think it may be the same for soul—for our own souls and the souls of other people and any other souls there may be in the other living creatures. Sometimes we need to stop thinking, quiet down, and just be present. If there is such a thing as soul somewhere, it won’t be defined by words or discovered by science. It happens within and between us.
As Montgomery writes, “While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness.”
Perhaps we have been reluctant to assign souls to animals, especially squishy, slimy animals like octopuses, because we haven’t spent enough time with them—quality time, building meaningful relationships. It was only in the 1960s when Jane Goodall began studying our closest relatives, chimpanzees, in the wild by living with them that she learned that chimps made simple tools, and communicated, and (she asserted) were conscious beings more like us than different from us. Until she went to live with the chimps, we had no idea what or who they really were.
One of the things we have to consider when evaluating our beliefs is the consequence of those beliefs. The consequence of thinking of animals as soulless I believe has led to a reluctance to think morally about how we treat the animals in our care and how we treat animals in the wild. We often don’t think about the needs of animals at all because as soulless creatures we don’t imagine that they can be truly harmed, or if they can be harmed, then that harm doesn’t really matter morally because being soulless, animals don’t rise to a level of human or divine concern. We can mistreat them. We can wipe them out. Their suffering isn’t true suffering.
What would be the consequence of granting animals the benefit of the doubt? How might the world look if the birds and the fish and the wolves and the pigs were creatures with at least a little soul or the possibility of a little soul? Would we be kinder to the environment that animals need to survive? Would we work harder to protect endangered species? Would we stop animal testing? Would we raise the welfare standards for animals in factory farms?
Could animals with souls make the world a little better? I think they might. And I could even imagine a walk through the woods with your dog could become an even more beautiful, more spiritual, more God-filled experience. Imagine if a walk in the woods was not just an opportunity to spot living creatures, but an opportunity to meet and to get to know living souls.
Listen to how Montgomery describes one of her scuba dives:
“At last, in the warm embrace of the sea, breathing underwater, surrounded by the octopus’s liquid world, my breath rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise, here I am.
“There follows a parade of wonders: A splendid toadfish hides beneath a rock… It’s pancake flat, with thin, wavy, horizontal blue and white stripes, Day-Glo yellow fins, and whiskery barbels. A four-foot nurse shark sleeps beneath a coral shelf, peaceful as a prayer. A trumpet fish, yellow with dark stripes, floats with its long, tubular snout down, trying to blend in with some branching coral… A school of iridescent pink and yellow fish slide by inches from our masks, then wheel in unison like birds in the sky.
“I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objects appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed.”
What if we altered our perceptions the way that Montgomery has? Because I think her description of that scuba dive is a description of a world filled will soul as diverse as life. Maybe that’s a world we’d all like to live in.
Before he died last month, John Lewis was (at least in my heart) the greatest living American. Born into poverty to a sharecropper family in rural Alabama during the time of segregation, he became a young leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He was one of the 13 original freedom riders, an integrated group who traveled by bus through the South to protest segregation. He was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which used civil disobedience as a tool in the fight for justice. He was the youngest member of the “Big Six,” the six Black leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He stood at the front of the line at the first Selma-to-Montgomery march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what has become known as Bloody Sunday. He had his skull fractured by a police baton that day and was beaten and bloodied by white police and white mobs more times than can be counted, not to mention that he was arrested 40 times for civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights. Later he served as a representative in Congress for more than 30 years (an office he held until his death) and in 2011 he was awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Barak Obama.
John Lewis was a believer in the American dream, and he worked all his life to make sure that America lived up to her ideals for everybody. By all measures he was a tremendous patriot who was absolutely willing to lay down his life for his country, a country that he loved but that (because of the color of his skin) didn’t always love him. And, as he deserved, over the last few weeks, much has been said about his patriotism and his accomplishments for his country and I’m sure that you all have followed his memorials and remembrances in the news and that you’ve mourned for the loss of this great American.
John Lewis was a great American, but as the Church, we also need to remember him as a great Christian and a disciple of Jesus. John Lewis was not just incidentally a Christian. He didn’t just happen to be a Christian. John Lewis is an example of a person who lives out the fullness of their Christian faith and identity in their life.
John Lewis was born into a little boat on rough seas. And when God called, he jumped out of the boat and right into the storm. It was a big ask. But he did it and he stayed out in that storm because he had a faith that told him it was the right thing to do and that God would be with him no matter what.
When he was once asked about the spirituality of the Civil Rights Movement Lewis said, “The early foundation, the early teaching of the movement was based on the Scripture, the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of Gandhi and others. You have to remind people over and over again that some of us saw our involvement in the civil rights movement as an extension of our faith.”
One way to be a Christian is to be a Christian on Sunday only. Or to be a Christian in church only. Or to be a Christian for heaven only. This kind of Christianity can easily get disconnected from the rest of our lives—our work and our relationships and our life goals. We don’t turn away from God exactly, but we don’t give ourselves all the way over either. What we do in our lives and how we do it doesn’t necessarily coincide with our faith, with the needs of our neighbors, or with the deepest longings of our own hearts.
The other way to be a Christian is to work every day to fulfill your Christian identity—the promises of our faith, the world’s deep needs, and the deepest longings of your heart—fulfill your Christian identity in the fulfillment of your life’s mission. And it was exactly John Lewis’ Christian faith that motivated him to live a life fighting for justice and serving his country. And it was precisely his Christian faith that informed him about the best way to conduct that struggle—through nonviolent (but aggressive) Christian action—what Lewis frequently and famously called “good trouble.”
Three weeks ago, I was preaching to you on my summer reading (The Righteous Mind) and Jesus’ morality. I told you that Jesus wants us to be free from oppression, but the challenge of Jesus’ liberty is that as we fight for our humanity, we are not allowed to dehumanize ourselves by dehumanizing others because God also cares for those others. And that is a Christian principle that John Lewis brilliantly enacted in his life’s work.
In that sermon three weeks ago, I also told you that we’d need to come back to this “turn the other cheek” scripture. I told you that its often been interpreted to mean that good Christians are just supposed to take any old abuse that comes our way and be nice about it, and we were going to need more than one sermon for me to explain why this isn’t a good interpretation for what Jesus is saying.
So, this Sunday it turns out is the perfect time to return to this piece of scripture. Because what Jesus is actually asking us to do (when he asks us to turn the other cheek, to give our cloak, and to go the second mile), Jesus is asking us to get into “good trouble.” And this piece of scripture inspired John Lewis’ nonviolent (but aggressive) action. Listen to what he said in an interview from 2004.
“I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the [civil rights] movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of a sense of faith—faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings. From time to time, I make a point, trying to take people back, and especially young people, and those of us not so young, back to the roots of the movement. During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love—the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. There’s not anything in any Constitution that says anything about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.”
John Lewis’ life is proof that when Jesus tells us not to hit back, it doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to just resign ourselves to being beaten. And when Jesus asks us to forgive, he’s not asking us to accept injustice, he’s asking us to act up for a repaired and reconciled world. And, in fact, what the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s believed and demonstrated is that there was a moral force in not hitting back that was powerful—powerful enough to be able to transform the consciousness of a nation and to lead to major victories for Black people in America.
So, let’s look a little more closely at the ways Jesus is pointing out this power in our first scripture reading. My understanding here was informed by the great Biblical Scholar and theologian Walter Wink. He points out the cultural contexts of Jesus’ teachings.
First, notice Jesus’ says if you are struck on the right cheek. In Jesus’ day there were two kinds of strikes—the fist and the backhand. The fist was a punch for social equals. The backhand was an especially insulting slap used by a social superior to hit a social inferior. A single blow would have been dealt with the right hand because the left hand was the hand you used in the toilet and so there were rules about not using the left hand to touch things like food or people. So, if you follow all that in your imagination, you see that Jesus’ audience knew that a single slap across your right cheek was a backhanded slap. And when you rise up from that backhanded slap and turn the other cheek, you turn your left cheek which can then only be struck with the open palm (or fist) of the right hand—but that’s a respectable way to fight with your equals, it’s not how you slap down your inferiors.
So, yes, Jesus is teaching us nonviolence, but he’s not asking us to cringe in the corner and to accept abuse. Baked into the command to turn the other cheek is a subversive, nonviolent, aggressive resistance to unjust power—a rising up in a self-affirmation of equality that affirms an oppressed person’s humanity without dehumanizing anyone.
In Jesus’ day a poor person would have owned two pieces of clothing. An undergarment and an overgarment. Let’s call them a shirt and a coat just to make it easier for us. At that time a poor person could literally be sued for the shirt off their back by a creditor or landlord, but the creditor or landlord couldn’t take their coat because that would have left this person naked and in danger of freezing.
In Jesus’ culture they felt a little differently than we do about nakedness. In our culture, if I were standing up here naked in front of you, I’d be mortified and ashamed and you all would be a little embarrassed but also maybe laughing and making fun of me. In Jesus’ culture it was flipped around. If I were standing here naked in front of you I would probably be a little embarrassed, but you all would be mortified and ashamed and you would feel like the transgression was yours for seeing me naked, rather than mine for being naked.
So, when Jesus asks a poor person to strip off their coat in court after their shirt has been taken away, he’s asking them to stand there naked. He’s asking them to remind the rich and the powerful of God’s law which forbids taking everything from the poor. And if the powerful are unable to feel shame for their actions, then perhaps they will be confronted with their own shame when they are forced to see the human being that they sued naked in front of them. This was nakedness as a disruptive protest against injustice—revealing to the world your own human vulnerability and confronting the powers that be with their sins.
If you’re having trouble imagining nakedness as a protest, consider the naked Quaker. In 17th century Massachusetts, our Puritan ancestors made it illegal to be Quaker. Some Quakers were even put to death by our spiritual forebears for not conforming. Quakers were expected to attend a Puritan church. We know that at least one Quaker woman, Lydia Wardell, would come into a church on Sunday morning, take off all her clothes, and sit down in the front pew for the Sunday service. You can imagine just how much our stodgy, puritanical, Puritan forebears didn’t appreciate this. And you can begin to imagine what an effective disruption nakedness can be given the proper context.
In Jesus’ day Roman troops were legally entitled to gang press local peasants into carrying their packs for them. But military discipline was strict, and troops were only allowed to force someone to carry their equipment for one mile—no more. A friendly Judean or Galilean peasant marching a second mile would have put the Roman soldier who forced him to carry his pack in the first place at risk of punishment from his commander. Again, we see that even going the second mile was a way of taking control and subversively resisting injustice.
John Lewis never hit back. Much was taken from him by his country and by white people, but he kept giving the best he had, even when it laid him out. John Lewis went the second mile. He accepted Jesus’ way as his way, as the guiding principle of his life’s work. We know that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. It wasn’t easy to put life and limb on the line over and over again for freedom and for justice. It wasn’t easy to turn the other cheek again and again when it would have seemed like justice demanded punishing those who were so cruel and so wrong. But John Lewis was a believer.
Believing in Jesus’ way and believing in justice and non-violence in an intellectual way are one thing. True belief, real faith, requires something more than intellectual assent. It requires us to jump from the boat into the storm. It requires courageous action. John Lewis lived a life of courageous Christian action. I wonder, what would courageous action look like in your life? What would courageous action look like in our life together as a church?
This is what Lewis said about courageous action:
“When we’d go out to sit in or go out to march, I felt, and I really believe, there was a force in front of us and a force behind us, ’cause sometimes you didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what to say, you didn’t know how you were going to make it through the day or through the night. But somehow and some way, you believed—you had faith—that it all was going to be all right.”
What would it look like if we all believed like John Lewis believed? And what would it look like if we all lived like John Lewis lived?
This post-election sermon was a difficult one to write in the midst of a big week. It ended up probably being too long. If I had had 24 more hours, I think I could have tightened it up quite a bit (the irony is that shorter sermons take longer to write). At the same time, there was a lot that needed to be said and a lot that needed to be worked through in this sermon. I got requests ranging from "I think there needs to be yelling," to "Go easy on us." Some folks needed a call to Christian action right away. Others needed to mourn. Some people wanted to call out the sin. Others wanted an assurance of grace. The big week also served the sermon with Megan and Nicole's wedding becoming just about the best possible sermon illustration a preacher could hope for. Other acknowledgments must go to Hal Taussig for introducing me to the Letter of Peter to Phillip at the Tanho Center, to Walter Wink and all his work on "Jesus' third way," and, of course, the congregation of First Church Somerville who are wonderfully supportive to their pastors when their pastors preach hard sermons.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Divine Parent is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Will you please pray with me?
Lord, I will stand at this watch post. And we will all watch together from this rampart. We will keep watch and we will await what you will say to us. What will you answer, O God, concerning our complaint? Help us, the speakers and the listeners and the watchers, to glimpse your vision for the appointed time. May we who see it, write it. May we who hear it, shout it out. May we who know it, make it known. And in your wrath, remember mercy. Amen.
How many of you remember that last Sunday we read this same piece of Scripture (Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also)? What a difference a week makes. Do these words sound different this week? The words themselves might feel like a slap across the face this morning. These are hard words to hear right now for many of us.
But this morning God has pushed me to speak about the other cheek, and to recommend to you that Christ’s command is a command for COMPASSION towards those intent on harming us without COMPROMISING on our most important values. COMPASSION without COMPROMISE.
If you’ve ever been slapped or struck across the face or upside the head, you may remember the slightly surreal and disorienting experience of a momentary shocked deafness on the side of your head that received the blow and then this rising, insistent, alarmed ringing in that ear. Well, this week, these words of Jesus have been ringing in my ears. It’s not a pleasant sound - it’s an alarm. And alarms, once they’ve been set off, offer us no easy comfort, no easy way out. They’re a painful reminder of the stinging blow we’ve been dealt.
Two weeks ago I was in Colorado at a conference where I was studying extracanonical Christian texts - those early Christian texts that didn’t make it in Bible, frequently because they lifted up the radical leadership, the preaching and teaching of women. As I wrestled with the idea of turning the other cheek this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of one particular text called the Letter of Peter to Philip. It tells the story of the Apostles after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. And they’re all doing their best to spread the Good News. So they’re healing, and preaching, and teaching, and baptizing, and they’re doing it in Jerusalem, in the Temple, in front of the Roman powers and the Temple authorities, and they’re getting in trouble, and they’re doing their best to turn the other cheek, but at some point it dawns on them. Hey, wait a minute, you know this is exactly what got Jesus crucified. We’re gonna get ourselves killed. This peace and love stuff is a one-way ticket to suffering. Why are we doing this? We need a new plan! And so they gather on the Mount of Olives, lock themselves away in a room, and they pray to Jesus and Jesus appears to them in a great light from heaven. And they talk for a good long while, the disciples explaining the situation as they see it to Jesus and asking, "What’s gonna happen to us? You’ve got our backs right? We’re going to be peaceful and loving and SAFE right?" And Jesus says listen, “I don’t know what's going to happen. But here’s what I know. The world needs peace and love and justice. The people need healing. And that’s what I’ve called you to teach and preach. I don’t know what is going to happen. But I’ll be with you.” And so the disciples head back out to the Temple and they perform healings and they preach and teach the good news and do their best to offer the world Jesus’ Way. And the letter ends there, without letting us know what happens next.
People all over social media and in person this week – some of you among them – have been talking about Clinton’s loss and Trump’s election feeling like a death. Many of you posted on Facebook early Wednesday morning words to the effect of: “What do I tell my girls when they wake up? How do I make this OK?” It’s felt like more than one death - like a tragedy that takes away so many cherished lives and much hope in one swift blow. The death of a hope for the first woman president, of a hope in the greater decency of people, of a hope in certain democratic ideals, of a hope that our families would be safer over the next few years than in the past. And – wait a minute – as the shock wears off many of us hear in the rising ringing alarm sounding in our ears, this very real note of fear.
This wasn’t a death within the natural order of things – oh no, it was an attack. And the people who pulled the lever for that attack, and the unequipped narcissist with the soul of a tyrant that they elected, and the fundamentalist Christian hatemonger who rode into power on his coattails are not going to become suddenly magnanimous or reasonable or measured in their victory. Which institutions, which morals, which people will this rising movement of hate towards women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, the poor, immigrants, the sick, people with disabilities, and the imprisoned turn on next?
When the KKK and the American Nazi party and White Christian Evangelicals take to the streets in celebration of the election of their candidate we must realize that this election signals an attack bigger than any one person, something bigger than Trump, more powerful than him as a moral individual, certainly, and more powerful than he could be as president. There are larger forces at work here. We stand on the edge of an epic moment. Over the next few years we will see tremendous changes and setbacks. 50 years of progress since the voting rights act are now under attack. The push to undo decency will be waged in the white House, in Congress, in the complicit media, in the courts, in fundamentalist churches, and in our schools, our hospitals, and on our streets. Tuesday’s election changed our country and our democracy, and much like 9/11, we have only just begun to imagine what we will face.
Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” stings in the face of so much grief and reasonable fear. But alarms pierce our ears and our souls for a reason – for a purpose. Warning. Danger. Smoke means Fire! Wake up! For those who would say you to you this week, “get over it, it’s not that big of a deal, you’re being a sore loser, quit whining,” we have Jesus Christ’s words cutting to the white meat of our reality: “We HAVE been hit. We HAVE been stripped. We HAVE been hated, and cursed, and abused. Women, LQBTQ folks, Mexicans, Muslims – It’s real!” says Jesus, “I see the marks on your face. This is terrifying. The world needs you to respond - by offering up your vulnerability and fighting like hell. The world needs all of you: the cheek that has been struck and the cheek they’re aiming for next - all of you. And I will be with you.”
Yesterday Rev. Megan S. showed me what “turning the other cheek” might look like. Many of you know Rev. Megan because she was our Student Minister here two years ago. Well, yesterday, in the midst of all this horror, Rev. Megan married the love of her life: Army 2nd Lt. Nicole B. And so on Veteran’s Day Weekend, soldiers in uniform, and clergy colleagues, and friends and family gathered together to watch Megan and Nicole make their vows to one another. There was booming organ music, a bagpiper, and a traditional saber arch. Eight army officers held their swords up and as the two brides recessed down the aisle, each pair of soldiers dropped their swords in front of them and refused to let them pass - until they kissed. And there in one of the biggest and most beautiful and historic churches in Boston we made our promises to Megan and Nicole - that we would be there for them, that we would support them, that we would love them - come what may.
And out on the dance floor, partying our butts off, all of us felt in our dancing bodies who we are and what it is that we’re willing to fight for. A lesbian military church wedding is a risky thing, a beautiful thing, and a thing that must be celebrated and defended. And I thought, looking around the reception hall at everyone drinking wine that tasted like Jesus himself had had a miraculous hand in its production, this is a celebration of “turning the other cheek.”
Throughout Christian history “turning the other cheek” been frequently interpreted as a call to UNITY & SUBMISSION with those intent on doing us harm. Nonsense. We have not committed ourselves to Jesus’ Way and teachings in the hopes of UNITY with this world, in order to ACCEPT or TOLERATE this world’s violence or injustice. We follow Jesus, and take Jesus’ words seriously, to be unified with God through Christ. To be unified to our neighbors through love.
To God we offer submission, acceptance, and gratitude, even in the face of life’s inherent pains. But to demagogues, to pharaohs and to caesars, to patriarchs, to abusers, and to hatemongers, and to all other false idols and powers we Christians are commanded to offer the DISOBEDIENCE of our dancing bodies – to lift our faces up in sacred defiance, to look sin square in the eyes, and to declare ourselves Christ’s disciples and God’s beloved children.
A slap in the face is not an invitation to COME TOGETHER. In the same way the admonition to turn the other cheek is not a demand for UNITY. It’s the opposite. Turning the other cheek is Christ’s demand on us to express bodily differentiation, self-assertion, and dissent. Offering those who have struck us the other cheek is an offer of human DEFIANCE and civil DISOBEDIENCE that says you may have the power to hit us, you may have the power to strip us, you may have the power to oppress and imprison us, you may have the power to take away our status, our healthcare, our civil rights, but you DO NOT have the power to make us submit.
We will not be quiet. We will be ALL UP IN YOUR FACE. If you take away our clothes, we’ll be naked all up in your face - a mob of naked dancing nasty women, bad hombres, queer clergy, and active duty army officers. Let’s see how you respond to that. And so out of love - yes, love - for those who curse us, we will compassionately refuse to compromise with the violence of their agenda. We will passionately refuse to hide away who we are. We’ll flaunt who we are knowing that those who hate us will try to strike at the celebration of our love.
If Mike Pence gets his way, he will land a vicious blow on the cheek of our clergy-military lesbian wedding celebration. He’s going to do his worst to strike at our best. That is sure. And while we’re getting slapped on that cheek, Donald Trump will slapping at every Mexican and every Muslim from the other side.
Now, if you’re privileged, like I am, maybe you’ll be unfettered enough to dodge the blow that is coming. But if you’re not privileged, if the chains of oppression or vulnerability are too restricting, if your life depends on Obamacare, if your legal marriage depends on the supreme court, if your family depends on immigration reform, if you are literally imprisoned, if your hijab makes you a target, if your dark skin makes you a target, if your woman’s body has been turned into a target, then dodging might not be an option for you. It simply wasn’t an option for the disenfranchised poor peasants who gathered on the side of the mountain to listen to Jesus preach the words we heard this morning.
When despotism strikes at America the blow will land on the cheek of some far harder than others. If you’re a privileged Christian, you have a responsibility and a decision to make. Will you rush out of the burning building through the private escape hatch that Jesus himself refused to take or will you risk taking the long way through the fire with all those who have been burned and crucified?
Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me and there won’t be any more slapping.” Jesus says, “I’m here to make disciples first out of the people who have been slapped hardest.” If nobody has ever tried to crush you beneath their boot, you might not have the kind of ears you need to hear what Jesus is saying in this morning’s reading. But if you’ve been hated, abused, and reviled, you have the ears to hear. You’ve been slapped before and you know the sound of the ringing in your ears.
If you haven’t heard that ringing in your ears, if you haven’t been hit that hard, Jesus has some advice for learning to become a disciple. “Listen to ones with the ears to hear. Then put your cheek in the way of the next blow. Take everything you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me.”
In times like this, we must take refuge in our faith and in our faith community. In a time when the nation has become less safe, we’ll need to rely on this local faith community more. First Church, we’re already working on this. But we’ll need to make this spiritual home more robust, more open, more affirming. We’ll need a powerful religious education program for our kids to battle the messages they’re going to be receiving from Trump, Pence, and their administration. We’ll need a family ministry program that is going to be able to respond to families under serious duress – attacked and demeaned for who they are and who they love. We need to attend the antiracism and white privilege trainings being organized by some of our Deacons and Mission & Justice Committee members for 2017. We have to talk to one another now more than ever, and get to know and to LOVE one another now more than ever, and examine our own privilege and prejudice more than ever.
We need to care for one another in the difficulties ahead. Because the God we have come here to serve is not a God who promises us safety. She is a God who demands we love even those who hate us. With all my privilege, not even I can do that by myself. I can’t do that without you. We can’t risk the defiance and the discomfort of the other cheek without knowing that we will be there for each other and that we will be committed to being self-aware, repentant, faithful, and safe for one another. We can’t celebrate a defiant wedding and dance our hearts out by ourselves. We can really only turn the other cheek in community. No one should be left alone.
In the end, this is what Jesus offers us. Because the future is uncertain and difficult we are therefore called to heal, to teach, and to preach the Good News. We will defiantly, passionately stand in the face of what is to come together. We don’t know what will happen. But as Christ has promised to be with us, we promise to be with each other and all those primary disciples who are under attack. Amen.
Last month I preached on the Jesus' exhortation (via the Gospel of Matthew) that we ARE the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What is the relationship between the salt of the earth and the light of the world - where do these two ideas meet and how do they influence one another? As First Church Somerville continues to progress through the grief, the possibilities, and the work of the interim period, I offered them this affirmation of and challenge to their identity as a congregation.
Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel According to Matthew chapter 5, verses 13 – 16. Let us know hear the Word of God:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Parent in heaven.”
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be truly salty. Drop us in the ocean of your love and purpose, O God, and brine us until we are ready to taste the way we say we taste. Amen.
I haven’t preached in a while so I’m going to rewind the clock one whole month to what was a watershed historical moment in American history – the Democratic National Convention. Besides a woman – named Hillary Clinton – becoming the first woman ever nominated to run for president by one of the major political parties, which was an amazing historic moment for sure, there were a lot of other ways that the Democratic National Convention was unlike any we have ever seen before. The Convention fully embraced the language and the symbols of patriotism, family values, and religion in a way that surprised us – we’re used to seeing this kind of stuff at the Republican National Convention.
But at the Democratic National Convention, Liberal Religion and progressive Christianity had their most significant platform in the great American public commons since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Rev. William Barber’s speech on morality in which he called Jesus, “a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew,” followed directly by Khizr Khan’s speech in which he described his family as representing patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to their country is just one example of the narrative that was being created throughout the DNC – a narrative that argued that Christianity (and Islam) are not fundamentalist religions, but liberal ones and – more than that – PROGRESSIVE religions.
Christianity stated loudly and clearly at the DNC, along with other great faith traditions of the world, that we’re called to work within and to celebrate a pluralistic society, we’re called to love and serve our country and all who call it home, we’re called to defend and promote diversity and justice, and we’re called to be the moral defibrillators of our time for the failing heart of our democracy threatened by the indecency of an off-the-rails white nationalist movement and an absolutely complicit, morally bankrupt Christian right. This was a big moment for Christians and people of faith like us. This is a moment for us to be SALTY and to be BRIGHT in the world.
At the DNC Progressive Christians boldly stated their identity and their mission in the world. Well, what about our identity and our mission here at First Church? Before we rush out the door to add our efforts to the great liberal religious renaissance that may be coming, let’s take a lick off our own selves and trim the wick on our own lamp – let’s assess where we are now in this moment as a church, and as a congregation, in transition, and in the interim period between lead pastors.
Jesus asks us, if salt loses its saltiness – what good is it? Well, that’s stupid, Jesus. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. Salt IS salty, right? Once again the son of God proves his ignorance of chemistry and the hard sciences. But back in Jesus’ time and place the salt that was harvested was not entirely pure – there were other crystalized minerals mixed in and if exposed to moisture the salty parts could be dissolved away leaving you with a bunch of crystalized sulfates and borides which tasted terrible and were of no use. When this happened to your salt there was no getting out of it – you needed to let that salt go and get yourself a new batch of salty salt. From Jesus’ cultural perspective salt could not be defined by pointing to a big pile of the stuff, it could only be defined by tasting it – by its true essence or its flavor, by its saltiness.
For years, under the leadership of lead pastor Rev. Molly Baskette’s leadership, the size of our church boomed. We were a growing mountain of salt! But we never really figured out how to go from being a sprinkling of salt to a great big pile – there were always growing pains – a constant struggle to be the next-sized church that we never quite figured out. Numbers were up, giving was up, but growth – growth in the sense of development along a path – growth that wasn’t about piling on salt but that was about fulfilling the destiny of the flavor of salt – was a different story.
In a little while we’ll be adding a new member to our ranks – Jesse Stansfield. He’s been around for years now, but today he officially and fully immerses himself in the covenant of membership here at First Church. Our covenant at this church is not worth joining because of the number of people involved, but because of the quality of the relationships here and the quality of our ability to serve God and the world together. Our covenant, our agreement to be church with one another, is the salty flavor of God among us. It’s our identity.
Our covenant has changed recently. One of Rev. Molly’s last acts among us was to ask us to revise the covenant of membership so that it no longer required baptism as a prerequisite for church membership. No matter how you felt about the potential change, we wouldn’t have tackled it when we did it if Rev. Molly hadn’t pushed the issue as she was leaving. It was a big decision for many of us, but the conflict, the consequences of conflict, and the resolution of the conflict stayed largely focused on Rev. Molly. It was her idea, her agenda, and her organizing that led to the discussion and so she absorbed the conflict as she always did, and ultimately we made the change.
But really it was just the beginning of a change in the nature of our covenant of membership – a change that we are ultimately not in control of and maybe we’re even resisting thinking about it – that despite what the membership promises have stated to the contrary much of our covenantal relationship at First Church Somerville has focused on our individual, personal relationship with one particular pastor – with Rev. Molly Baskette. When Rev. Molly left, the flavor of the covenant seemed to change radically for many of us.
For those of us who are committed to the mission of this church into the future, we’ve come to a time when the size of the pile marked “salt” has to matter less to us than the flavor found in each individual grain. This is a different kind of growth – a movement away from being attached to quantity as a marker of vitality and a sign that we have something to contribute to the world, and a movement toward discovering our true quality – a quality that can’t go away just because someone leaves, just because things are changing. Things are always changing. Perhaps, one way of looking at it is that we haven’t really lost our flavor at all – we just haven’t really, truly, confidently tasted it yet.
One of the most important pieces of the interim period, I think, will be to realize that the particular flavor, and that particular way we related to Rev. Molly Baskette can never be replicated or replaced. That’s just not the way it works – ever. And if the hope is that our new senior pastor will restore the saltiness to our covenant, we’re setting ourselves and our new pastor up for quite a disappointment.
Nobody – and I mean nobody – in all of Christendom – wants to serve as Rev. Molly Baskette’s replacement – as her stand in. Our next Senior Pastor will want to serve God, this church, and the world as themselves. So, YES, we want a strong, organized, charismatic, visionary leader who knows how to preach, teach, and lead! But do we want someone who will be willing to cram themselves into a Molly-shaped hole, or do we want someone who wants something much bigger than that?
At moments of difficult change in any life, it can feel like the lamp is on the lampstand, but that the flame is out. And we’re waiting for someone or something new to come along to light the lamp. Or maybe to actually BE the light itself. Is that the pastor we want? Is that the pastor we need? Or do we want someone who wants something much bigger than even that?
When potential new pastors are checking us out, I think we want them to see the lamp burning brightly because we, the beloved community, are that light, and the caretakers of our own light, and as a community we’ve set the lamp on a stand for the world and it’s higher up than any one person could ever hope to go on their own! And we want that pastor to GASP and be inspired by US and think MY GOD MY GOD these people have something to teach ME. And then they start to dream about how they can help us to raise our lamp even higher, to expand the circle of its glowing, rather than having to worry about constantly keeping the fire burning. In our most nervous and exhausted moments of change that’s what we think we need – someone who can keep the fire burning for us. Someone who can add flavor to this bland meal. Someone who will brighten up our dingy covenant.
When Jesse comes up here this morning to join our Covenant of membership, he’ll be carrying a candle. All of you who have joined us have done the same thing. You carried your lit candle up to the altar as a symbol of joining your gifts to the gifts of everyone else here. Pay attention to that symbol this morning and consider what it says about our greatest hopes for our salty, shiny selves.
The connection between salt and light brings us back again to the opportunity of the present moment – the opportunity to be a part of taking back the religious dialogue in this country from ideologues and hatemongers. The dynamic connection point between the salt of the earth and light of the world is called Mission. Mission is about who we are in covenant together (our saltiness) and how we live out who we are in the world (our lampiness).
I think First Church Somerville might have a bit of a mission problem, in that the dynamic point of connection between our saltiness and our lampiness, the point from which we step out to act in the world, and the point to which we return to reflect on what we have done and how it has changed us – that all-important point is in need of well – growth, development.
We have a Mission and Vision Statement – in which we define ourselves as a diverse group of progressive Christians and in which we layout some goals for ourselves as a community – we want to grow, we want to welcome people more deeply into the life of the church, we want to become more diverse, we want to provide a good religious education to our kids, and we want to develop new congregational leaders. This seems to be more or less our internal mission.
And then we have a Mission & Justice committee that is focused on making sizable charitable donations to outside groups and causes and to developing relationships to outside organizations and movements. This seems to be more or less our external mission.
Our mission somehow got divided in two – and it’s critical that we reconnect the two halves. Yes, absolutely, our sizable contribution to the Somerville Homeless Coalition every year is a part of our mission. If we try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, we will no longer be a functioning church – we’ll be salt that’s lost its saltiness. And, yes, absolutely, the Youth Group is a part of our mission. If we ignore the educational programs for our kids, we will soon cease to be a functioning church – we’ll essentially be knocking the lampstand out from underneath the lamp.
We cannot have one half of our mission in competition with the other. If we’re going to be a church for the future, contributing to the best of what Christians can offer the world, we will be a church with one unified mission that equally supports the baby born here and the movement builder fighting for justice on the street outside. Because those are not two different things. They are connected! Movement builders make babies. And babies grow up to be movement builders.
Now this is great because I can feel the anxiety rising in the room just at the mention of the fact that we might need to evaluate our mission and RE-evaluate how we support that mission – why is there forced conscription of volunteers for Sunday School and Coffee Hour but no requirements for protesting and lobbying for justice? Why is there so much money to support charitable donations to outside groups but not enough money to functionally staff or supply our Sunday School or to buy food for the coffee hour table?
Undoubtedly, there will be CONFLICT! And I can’t imagine anything better – anything more honest, more revealing, and more SALTY than a little fight around here. A conflict that doesn’t begin and end with the senior pastor making a unilateral decision, but a fight that we have to start on our own and that we have to settle on our own.
This is precisely the sort of problem, and the sort of learning, we’re meant to tackle in our interim period. Imagine if we figured this one out NOW and we were able to use that learning and self-discovery process to teach us about ourselves so that we could use the new knowledge to help us hire the pastor who will be the best leader for who we are and where we’re going INSTEAD of hiring someone and sticking them with the unfortunate first task of picking a fight about how we support the mission of the church.
Actually, we’ve made some great progress. We have an amazing, dedicated search committee who take finding a great new pastor for this church very seriously. We have a Building Task Force Committee who are for the first time in five years bringing the renovation project under true congregational control. We have a Family Ministry Taskforce Committee who are exploring how our Sunday School stacks up to the competition in order to make recommendations for the goals we need to set to fulfill our Mission to our kids and to the families who will be arriving SOON, when things change again, and the salt starts piling up.
Now what we need to do is not to just make this about the work we need to get done until the new pastor gets here. We need to make this about figuring out who we are, how we relate to one another, and where we see ourselves getting to – I mean really getting to – not just “program-sized church” whatever the heck that means. Who cares how big we get? Let’s grow by really understanding who we essentially are as salty Christians, by committing to being the light, not just watching the light show, and by evaluating and merging our mission work so that when it comes time for our new pastor to start we can actually tell them who we are and what we’re called by God to do in the world. Amen.
This was a hard sermon to write. It was difficult to find the right balance of anger and hope, comfort and motivation, confession and affirmation. This is one ally's attempt to respond to what the Spirit was trying to say. It was gratifying to hear all the creative ideas that people started throwing out after the service. To quote legendary graffiti artist Freedom, "We have just begun to move."
Matthew 13:24-33; Matthew 13:44-46
One week ago, as we were celebrating Pride Sunday, we were just beginning to hear about yet another act of violence, another mass shooting, another act of terrorism, this time in Orlando. By the end of worship we knew it was even more – a hate crime, an attack on the Pride celebrations of the LGBTQ community, an attack on the Latinx community, and the largest mass shooting in modern American history – 50 dead, even more injured.
All week long I’ve been praying for a word of comfort to share with all of you. And it hasn’t been easy to find those words. There are no words to erase the violence that was done in Orlando. I have no words to smooth over the pain. I feel as though God is asking me to wrestle alongside all of you – as honestly as I know how – with these terrible murders.
To begin, here are some of the words that must be said this morning from this pulpit and from every Christian pulpit: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people are God’s children. And those who lost their lives in Orlando – mostly young gay Latinos – were created by God in all their beauty and loved by God in life just as they were – as queer, as brown-skinned, as gay men, as Spanish-speaking, as same gender loving, as immigrant.
Being lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer is not now and has never been a sin. Loving or desiring a person of the same sex or gender and mutually, consensually acting on that love and desire is not now and has never been a sin. Coming out of the closet, getting married, or starting a family – these actions of love, brave actions of spiritual growth, actions that bear witness to the power and goodness of God and what God has made – are not sins.
“You will know them by their fruits,” said Jesus. The job of faith is to discern what is good and what is evil by its results in the world – the fruit it bears, says Jesus. By Jesus’ standard, could anything be better in God’s eyes than to be beautifully gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer? The fruit borne by LGBTQ identity and community is love, sex, marriages, pleasure, families, joy, community, and a compassionate, well-forged, profoundly aware identity that is deeply and genuinely concerned for the people who Jesus was most in love with – everyone who has been marginalized and abused by the dominant culture. What greater gift could God have given to us than queerness and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people?
A world, a country, and a Church full of queer people, queer love and sex, queer families, and queer communities is a far better world than a world, country, Church without them. And anyone who would try to push on you the belief that being LGBTQ is less than the best thing, less than beloved by God, that being and acting gay are sins that will ideally disappear by the gun or by praying the gay away – that person is pushing rotten, poisonous, and sinful fruit – the kind of fruit that leads to murder, and mass murder, and worse.
Especially in a country that offers easy access to guns designed for murder, designed for mass murder, and worse. The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms – very well. But it is not the second amendment that is standing in the way of sensible gun reform in this country. We lack the political will to get the deed done because those of us who are outraged haven’t yet gotten organized enough to go up against the morally bankrupt firearms industry and the NRA. Beloved, now is the time to begin to see the gun violence issue as an issue pointed at the core of who we are as people of faith. Now is the time to respond to the blood of so many innocents cut down by weapons designed for soldiers on battlefields being wielded by murderers in children’s schools, movie theaters, black churches, and gay night clubs. Now is the time to reevaluate our relationship to guns in this country and to once and for all see the fruit that guns bear in our culture, to see the terror and the murder and the sin, and to see the blood that is on our hands as a people who have failed to act in defense of the innocents.
There is a word that describes the kind of belief systems – belief systems held by all different kinds of people – belief systems that refuse to do the faithful work of discernment. That word is: Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists of all stripes use the fact that we can’t look directly upon the face of God to their advantage. Fundamentalism is really very easy to understand. Just like Moses, we’re all stuffed inside the dark cleft of a rock, staring out hopefully. We get the merest glimpse of God’s backside and in that indirect, covered, hidden peek God declares as loud as thunder and as insistently as silence that we humans are NOT GOD and that we DO NOT KNOW.
And though the day may come when we will dissect the multiverse down to its very last subatomic hyperdimensional vibration; and when we will balance out all the equations of consciousness, and experience, and existence itself; and when even the very last inscrutabilities of quantum uncertainty are mapped out on a spreadsheet, we will recognize on that day that we haven’t yet seen anything more than God’s shadow passing by. And in the face of such a terrible realization, we will tremble.
And in that moment, as it has in so many others like it, fundamentalism will slither up from behind, whispering from further back in the cleft of the rock – PssssT – tempting us with dogmatic certainty, apocalyptic simplicity, and self-righteousness: “You’ll never see the face of God by looking out there,” fundamentalism will hiss in our ear. “Don’t give your faith to that mysterious, wishy-washy God. Give it to us. Give it to our rules. Join our militia! Deify your hatred!”
And even on that far future day, some of us – or some parts of each of us – might still turn around, give up looking for God, and crawl back further into the rock. Because fundamentalism – whether it be biblical or constitutional – is simply easier than faith and discernment – less risky, less disciplined, less compassionate, less vulnerable. Fundamentalism, unable to see the face of God and offended by the complexity of creation, the plurality of humanity, changing times and circumstances, and the uncertainty of faith, creates an idol of its own ideology and false history and worships itself. This is a human tendency, part of our shared human condition, and we’re all at risk of this trick of the Enemy.
I know, I know, “enemy” is kind of a loaded and fundamentalist-sounding word itself. The word that’s been translated from the original Greek as “enemy” in our parable reading this morning could literally, etymologically be translated as “the hater.” We’re all at risk of the lures of fundamentalism because some Hater has sown their weeds in every field.
Fundamentalists may have tried to convince you that YOU are the weeds, that THEY are the wheat, and that they are headed to the heavenly barn. You and I are headed for the fire because we are not fundamentalists like them and therefore we’re bound for hell. This interpretation is so prevalent and so EASY, and it’s been used to attack so many of us and the people we love, that it’s difficult for us to hear this parable of the wheat and the weeds and not to think of heaven and hell, us and them, the saved and the damned. But a spiritually abusive, overly simplistic allegory about how you are going to hell because you are a weed is NOT a parable. A parable, remember, is an opportunity from Jesus to draw from the depths – to dwell for a time in the mystery of God and to be delighted by the experience of God’s Wisdom.
Parables imagine the Realm of God, because we can’t see it directly. Even Moses can’t see God’s face directly without his brain melting and his head exploding. Understand – even God cannot show you Her True Face, Her True Realm, and keep you in one piece while doing it – it would be like trying to power a lightbulb with lightning strikes. And so Jesus tells us parables about the Realm of God comparing it to things that are hidden, lost, small, mixed up, and obscured.
Seeing the Face of God, experiencing the Realm of God, says Jesus, is like being a woman who hides a tiny bit of yeast in a large amount of flour and mixes it all up, until it’s all transformed.
It’s like finding a hidden treasure in a field, and instead of taking the treasure home with you, you cover the treasure back up, mixing it into the field and then you go and sell your house and everything in it so you can buy that field.
It’s like being a pearl merchant in a marketplace full of tiny, white pearls and finding the ONE hidden most valuable pearl mixed up in all the others and then bankrupting your pearl business to buy that ONE PEARL.
It’s like being a farmer with a field of wheat and weeds – all mixed up together, obscuring one another, growing up together. The farmer has to discern how to protect the wheat and weed out the weeds, and decides to wait until the day of harvest, when the wheat is wheatiest and the weeds are weediest.
An allegory about how you are going to hell is NOT a parable, it’s a fundamentalist weed – and, beloved, I think we can safely say that it’s harvest time. Because we’ve seen the rotten fruits of this overly-simplistic, antichrist, antigospel, antirevelatory, us-versus-them theology. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia – we have plumbed the depths of their simplicity and there is nothing but hate there. They are the weediest weeds, so it’s past time for us as a people, certainly as Christians, and I would pray, even as a nation, to clear the fields.
The firearms industry and NRA have money. But if we can begin to imagine the Realm of God, if we can discern the true fruit of assault weapons and guns in our communities, then we can make the moral and ethical case for a transformation in our gun culture that chooses life over profit, honor over fear, love over hate.
Perhaps, we as a people have not yet found the faith and the creativity to believe that just a little bit of yeast can transform large measures of flour. And so we don’t bother trying to mix it in. We’ve seen the treasure in the field, and we’ve covered it over again, and we’ve gone home to bed and let ourselves despair, instead of sacrificing the house, the bed, and everything else we have to buy that field. We haven’t been able to afford the one great pearl because we’ve been unwilling to sell off the lesser pearls of our comforts and privilege. It’s time to let go of our unfettered access to guns so that we can possess something greater – and that something greater is love for our neighbors.
In a world full of racism and homophobia, much of which has been perpetuated by the Church throughout history, we must demonstrate our faithful love for Queer People of Color by doing our best work to disarm the Haters intent on doing them harm. Ask Jesus in your prayers today, "Lord, what is more important – the lives of your children or the guns designed to slaughter your children?" We have looked out at a field choked with the weeds of homophobia, racism, gun violence, and many of us have been unwilling to do the hard work of harvesting and separating the good grain from the bad weeds. Those weeds are choking out our vision, our imagination, and our experience of the Realm of God. It is time to act.
I would ask you, as a church, to begin to faithfully, prayerfully discern and imagine how it is we might act together. What can we do? I imagine that we can do something. What we must recognize, beloved, is that the status quo – a gun in the hands of every disaffected, angry, lost young man hell-bent on murdering our neighbors – cannot be acceptable to us as Christians and peacemakers. Let’s find a way to come together to disarm hate. Let’s separate the weeds from the wheat, let’s burn our hatred and our phobias and our fundamentalist tendencies as an act of contrition, and let’s store up the good grain that will nourish us toward bravery, faith, and action.
Beloved, in life, none of us can ever see the true face of God. But look at the cover of your bulletin this morning. There are 49 faces there. Look at them and don’t look away. I see a little bit of God mixed up in every one of those beautiful brown faces. And I am praying this morning that we find a way to honor them:
Stanley Almodovar III
Oscar A Aracena-Montero
Antonio Davon Brown
Darryl Roman Burt II
Angel L. Candelario-Padro
Luis Daniel Conde
Cory James Connell
Tevin Eugene Crosby
Deonka Deidra Drayton
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez
Leroy Valentin Fernandez
Mercedez Marisol Flores
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz
Juan Ramon Guerrero
Paul Terrell Henry
Miguel Angel Honorato
Jason Benjamin Josaphat
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla
Christopher Andrew Leinonen
Alejandro Barrios Martinez
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez
Akyra Monet Murray
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera
Joel Rayon Paniagua
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez
Enrique L. Rios, Jr.
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan
Edward Sotomayor Jr.
Shane Evan Tomlinson
Martin Benitez Torres
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez
Luis S. Vielma
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon
Jerald Arthur Wright
A strange sort of miracle happened with yesterday's sermon. I actually liked it. I'm not sure how that happened. Usually, I'm terrified of my sermons after I preach them. But Sunday evening I found I actually wanted to listen to the recording. In four years of sermoning, I've never wanted to listen to a sermon EVER. And I have never listened to one on Sunday evening, let alone with delight.
Maybe it's because I really don't feel very responsible for this one. It came and found me. On Saturday night I had already written a sermon for Sunday, but at 7 PM - after I'd already put away a nice relaxing beer - the Holy Spirit downloaded this one into me. It was all right there. Boom. Impossible to be ignored. I wrote the whole thing down in maybe three hours, which is the least amount of time I've ever spent writing a sermon.
Working hard is important. And developing our skills and character in order that we will be able to offer our best gifts is important. But it is such a relief to remember that it's not always all on us. In creative endeavors I experience this Grace most powerfully. I set an intention to make something, I put in the work, but the final result is often something that was beyond my original imagining.
Manuscript is below...
I was honored last month to be invited by Megan Snell to preach at her (celebration of) ordination last month. First Church was very fortunate that we were able to scrounge up some loose change so that we could pay Megan to be our student minister in the 2014-2015 academic year. We all learned a lot from each other! And hosting her ordination (celebration) was an exciting moment for the church. I think the whole congregation was feeling proud and emboldened by witnessing Megan's journey of faithfulness and commitment. I tried to capture a bit of that in my first ever ordination sermon. I offer it here:
Scripture and manuscript are below.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations