The Easter teaching was meant to serve as dual invitation: First, our all-church peace study begins Sunday, April 15, during the education hour. This will be similar in format to last year’s white privilege study. We’ll gather in the sanctuary for an opening session and then break into guided discussion groups as we seek to deepen our understanding of peace and commitment to nonviolent ways of living. The study will run five Sundays. Second, our fall lecturer in theology and ethics, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, will be with us October 18-19. We are delighted to welcome one of the most significant feminist theologians of our time to guide us in necessary critique and liberative readings of our texts and traditions. The lectures are free and open to the public. All are welcome.

 

Not the peace of empire, the peace of Christ (Luke 24.1-12)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

April 1, 2018

 

I hadn’t realized it was Easter. I thought it was an overcast day in June. But halfway through the morning, I recognized it. I was sitting in the Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin.

A friend in Charleston had recommended it. When you go, he said, there’s this funny little church. It’s quiet. No one’s there. Don’t miss it. He tried to explain it and failed, but the earnestness of his effort convinced me.

It turned out that the chapel was part of the Berlin Wall Memorial. It had been built on what had once been called no-man’s-land, the parcel of land in between East and West Germany that had once bisected the city like a scar. Many had died on that soil trying to cross the boundary. One such casualty had actually been a church.

The Church of the Reconciliation once stood at the edge of the divide. Over time, however, the strip of no-man’s-land was widened, and the East German government demolished the church. Berliners remember watching its steeple fall in a cloud of dust. Later, after the wall came down, the German government returned the land to the church, though all that was left of the building was rubble.

The church rebuilt itself as a small chapel dedicated to peace. Architects Peter Sassenroth and Rudolf Reitermann, aided by the mud-brick building expert Martin Rauch fashioned a circular hall of contemplation.[1] It was spare and elegant, relying on design and silence to convey its message. The chapel was surrounded by a colonnade of wooden slats that invited worshippers to move from no-man’s-land into sacred space by following a path of dappled light. Inside, it was earthen in color, with few adornments save the original altarpiece from the church, including a frieze of the last supper. The face of Christ had been lost in the destruction, but curiously many of his students still looked toward him as he passed the bread and wine.

I entered the chapel with my family. Like everyone else, we fell silent when we stepped inside. My wife sat on a meditation bench. My son knelt at the altar where there were candles to light. I joined him with a whisper. For what shall we pray? I asked. For peace on earth, he said. Good will to all. We lit the candle and watched the movement of the flame.

I don’t know how long we stayed. But before we left I ran my hand across the wall. It was rammed-earth construction, an ancient technique that employed the use of local materials like sand, gravel, or clay with an adherent to bind them.[2] The chapel had been built out of fragments of the old church mixed with the soil of no-man’s-land. It had literally and figuratively risen from the ashes. It represented a kind of life after death. It was a resurrection story. And its good news was that peace was possible. A path made through wilderness. A way where there had been no way.

German theologian Dorothee Soelle wrote of how the new life promised by Christianity is qualitatively different from the old. And the heart of our faith is constituted by commitments that run counter to the status quo. When we talk about peace at Eastertime, we do not mean the world’s peace. There are “two very different concepts of peace,” she wrote, “the Pax Romana and the Pax Christi.”[3] The Pax Romana is the peace of Rome or the peace of empire, like the military industrial empire in which we currently live. The Pax Christi, however, is the peace of Christ, the peace of the itinerant wisdom teacher who did not abide the empire into which he was born or play by its oppressive rules. In Soelle’s words, the Pax Romana was and is a “military peace that builds on intimidation” while the Pax Christi was and is a “peace that prevails among people with whom God is pleased, especially the poor.”[4] They provide for us an essential conflict. In her words, “Pax Romana and Pax Christi are mutually exclusive. We cannot have both. We cannot have the peace of Christ in our hearts, for our inner selves, while depending on the Pax Romana to guarantee our external lifestyle and the world order in which we live.”[5]

I had thought of Soelle’s words as I sat in the chapel in Berlin. In part, because she was a favorite German feminist theologian and the country I was in brought her to mind. And in part, because I was sitting in a place where empires had once collided during the Cold War, all of our military might arrayed against one another, guns and missiles pointing from opposite sides of a wall — and now a chapel had sprung up in its place where Easterners and Westerners sat together and lit candles for peace. The Pax Christi, Soelle taught, “was built not on militarism but on justice. There is no other way truly to have peace. We have to choose which kind of peace we will seek and work for.”[6] One could argue that the wall created a kind of peace between adversaries. But only a Pax Romana. Only an unjust peace. In faith, we long for something else. And in faith we affirm that something else is possible.

On this holiest of days for Christians, we gather to retell the story of the empty tomb. Jesus, put to death by the Roman imperial order, had been laid to rest by Joseph of Arimathea and others of his friends. The story is a familiar one to us. We’ve heard Luke’s version today, notable for the poetic quality of its Greek and the detail of it narrative flourish. But on the first day of the week, we are told, at dawn, the women came to the tomb bearing spices. They found the stone rolled away, but there was no body, which puzzled them. Suddenly, heavenly messengers appeared to the women, who then bowed, perhaps afraid to look up. And according to Luke’s version they asked a beautiful question: Why do you look for the living among the dead? For a moment the women didn’t know what the messengers meant. For a moment none of us do. But the question lies at the heart of the Easter story.

If we want to find life, then we need not look in the places of death. No-man’s-land is not the place to find it, the rubble of a church is not the place to find it, an empty tomb is not the place to find it, a militaristic empire is not the place to find it. No, the life we seek is to be found in what is built in spite of death and in place of it, it is on the road to Galilee after the graveyard, it is in the peace of Christ borne out in creating an alternative, egalitarian, beloved community where all are welcomed and celebrated and violence and its causes are rendered unimaginable.

As the story goes, the women realized this in conversation with the messengers, and they went from the tomb, the first bearers of the good news. The men did not believe them, though we are told Peter ran to the tomb and looked around in amazement, wondering what it meant. He may as well have been sitting in the Chapel of Reconciliation or running his hand along its wall. How can this be? New life out of death? Pax Christi in place of Pax Romana?

It’s a question for all of us who live in this empire. Our Pax Americana is now enforced by violence or the threat of violence. In a global sense, our country has military bases in more than 150 other countries, and our troops are currently fighting in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as other places, like Niger, that we occasionally learn about when soldiers die in combat there.[7] We patrol the globe with ballistic missile submarines, and the current administration has threatened to use nuclear weapons against other nations. The newly-chosen national security adviser is a lifelong warhawk and proponent of military intervention over diplomacy. Indeed, in just the past few weeks we have taken several real steps toward war that should leave every citizen gravely concerned. And in a local sense, we see the ongoing violence of police brutality on the streets, shootings in schools, homophobia, transphobia, and bigotry from elected officials, and all kinds of hate speech online. Our country is held together by an uneasy peace based on raw power, bullying, and the idea that this is the best we can hope for. It’s a deadly kind of cynicism with no life in it. So let us not look for life in it, let us not look for the living among the dead. Let us look instead to a different place of peace. Let us dare to dream of it and tell it as good news.

Biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza writes that the Easter stories, as recounted by early Christians are rhetorical reconstructions of something deeply, powerfully true. Namely, that resurrection is not simply a matter of the individual or the soul, but that it “requires the transformation of the [entire] world as we know it.”[8] The gospel, which was first shared by women, envisioned a Pax Christi in the face of, in spite of, the Pax Romana in which its bearers lived. In Luke it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women, but the gospels are consistent in offering that women were the primary witnesses of the good news of Easter. Death was not given the last word, nor was the Pax Romana. They envisioned a new kind of life. It was to be found not in the tomb, but in the road ahead, the pathway out of the graveyard.

In place of a certain conclusion to the Easter story, Elisabeth says, was the open road to Galilee. That was where the risen Christ was to be found, but, just as importantly, that is where the people were to find each other, and, in so doing, to create and carry on the movement he was teaching. That movement was defined by a deep commitment to egalitarianism. The good news, in Elisabeth’s view, was and is “justice and well-being for every [woman, man, and child] without exception” and that “the Living One is present wherever the disciples of the basileia [kin-dom] practice the inclusive discipleship of equals, making it a present reality among [the] poor, hungry, abused, [and] alienated. . .”[9]

The Easter message is that life is not to be found in the places of death, but on the road that leads us out of them. And the Christ we seek on Easter, the Jesus Elisabeth calls Miriam’s child and Sophia’s prophet is found in the work, on the way, as we struggle to live out a different kind of peace and create a different kind of world.

If we’re happy with the Pax Romana, then Easter is not for us. But if we long for the Pax Christi and seek to build it with our own hands, then Easter is a holy time indeed. And it is all around us, plain to see when we choose the kind of peace we will seek and work for. You don’t have to look far this spring to find it. It’s in a rainbow flag. It’s in a Black Lives Matter drum circle. It’s in a #MeToo hashtag. It’s in a March for Our Lives. It’s in a pink-eared hat. And it’s in a bright white Easter lily.

Easter is anytime and anyplace we find ourselves joining together as a community of equals, building the world we want in the name of love. We do not look for the living among the dead, nor do we look for the new in the rubble of the old. Rather, we create the new life together. Where once there was no-man’s-land, we make a place to sit, pray, and work for peace.

Not the peace of empire. The peace of Christ. May it prevail in our hearts and on earth.

Amen.

 

 

[1] See the Chapel of Reconciliation page at the Berlin Wall Memorial website in English, accessed online at http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/chapel-of-reconciliation-216.html.

[2] See “Sacred Soil: Berlin’s Rammed-Earth Reconciliation Chapel is Part of the Berlin Wall Memorial” by Gretchen (last name unlisted) at the Inhabitat website, accessed online at https://inhabitat.com/sacred-soil-the-rammed-earth-reconciliation-chapel-in-berlin/.

[3] Dorothee Soelle, “Pax Romana and Pax Christi,” in Preaching on Peace, edited by Ronald Sider and Darrel Brubaker (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 94.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] See Greg Myre, “Under Trump, U.S. Troops in War Zones are On the Rise,” NPR News, December 1, 2017, accessed online at https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/12/01/566798632/under-trump-u-s-troops-in-war-zones-are-on-the-rise.

[8] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 131.

[9] Ibid., 206.

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At a Loss (Matt. 21.1-11)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

March 25, 2018

 

I’ll never forget the way she read it. Her voice wavered with sorrow, its sound echoing faintly off the brushed concrete and smooth walls of the sanctuary. Then Jesus gave a loud cry, she read. And breathed his last. She returned to her seat and let the words wash over us. In the dim light of our Good Friday service, I found myself deeply affected.

This was, in part, because the story was so gut-wrenching. Reading of Jesus’ death after slowly extinguishing the candles symbolizing his life and light always left me speechless. But it was also, in part, because Jesus usually died at the end of the Good Friday service and the woman had just killed him about fifteen minutes in. I sat in my minister’s robe, smiled, and wondered what to do. We had not yet read of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem or his trial. There was much of the story still to come. I was curious to find out how what would happen next.

As it turned out, we did what most churches would have done and just carried on as though nothing had happened. After the premature reading of Jesus’ death, we continued with the story in reading and song. Then, at the end of the service, he died again. Because you can’t really end a Good Friday service any other way.

The church found it as funny as I did, and people still joked about it when I took my leave to come to Charleston. You know, they said, in the time you were here, we killed Jesus 11 times and he only came back 10. I know, I smiled. It was a net loss.

I have remembered that particular Good Friday service every Holy Week since, and it has come to be one of my favorites. Not for the liturgical mistake, exactly, though that does make me smile. More for the existential joke. It’s funny to think that no matter how hard we try, how well we choreograph it, someone’s going to stand up and read out the last breath whether we’re ready or not.

No one knows this better than Kate Bowler, a professor of church history at Duke Divinity School. Kate is a young woman and a brilliant scholar with a husband and a baby son. And she is dying of cancer. She writes of the experience of having life interrupted by the specter of death in her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. “Plans are made,” she writes. “Plans come apart. . .And nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life more painful. . .More beautiful than I could have imagined.”[1]

Perhaps what is so powerful about the book is that Kate’s area of study has been what is known at the prosperity gospel. This is a strand of Christianity with which, I think, we are all familiar; it promises health, wealth, and wisdom to those with enough faith. Televangelists and megachurch preachers deal in this gospel, which claims that everything happens for a reason and that reason has to do with the faith or the faithlessness of an individual. This gospel is deeply materialist, promising lavish earthly rewards, and it also trades in certainty claiming that its adherents will be fine either here or in the hereafter. The prosperity gospel is, in many ways, about feeling good. And about the maintenance of those feelings.

Yet when Kate got sick she did not feel good. Not physically. Not emotionally. Not spiritually. And she began to see how most Christians avoided any thoughts or expressions that didn’t jibe with their need to feel all right. Kate was grieving and confused, wondering how much time she had with her husband and young son. She needed people who could be present with her and be real. Instead she got advice.

She writes of three kinds of people she still regularly encounters. The first group she calls the Minimizers. The Minimizers tell Kate that it really isn’t that bad. They tell her that heaven is her true home. They send her praying hands emoticons. They encourage her to cheer up. The second group Kate calls the Teachers. They seem excited by all that Kate might learn while dying. Her faith will be strengthened. She will be an example. The experience will be a lesson for all and everyone around her will gain wisdom and insight. And the third group she calls the Solutions People or the Solvers. They are not doctors, but they are happy to share what they’ve read on the internet just the same. If only Kate would try this type of prayer, that type of nutritional supplement, or some other curative, her problem would be solved.[2] The majority of these people, of course, are Christians. But they live only in Easter. There is no Palm Sunday, no Good Friday, where they can stand to stay.

Yet Kate reminds us that our faith is not a tool for avoiding reality, but rather it is a way of being within the bittersweet ambiguity of reality. And there may be no better example of this than Palm Sunday itself. The story holds so much. Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph with his friends and students. Crowds gather to honor him. They spread cloaks on the ground. They cut branches of palms. They shout Hosanna to the highest. It’s a beautiful story. It’s almost as good as being a young professor at a top divinity school with a husband and a baby. Finally, you’ve made it. It’s a triumph. Hosanna. And then the bottom falls out.

The story only goes one way. All of our stories do. We are marching toward our own mortality, and there’s nothing we can do to minimize, to teach, or to solve it away. We are, like Jesus, like Kate, deeply, irrevocably human. It’s a truth we should lay our cloaks before and tread toward lightly. But if we do. . .

At the heart of the gospel, and here I mean not the prosperity gospel, but the existential gospel, lies the invitation to live freely and without fear. Let us not worry about what we cannot control—the time and manner of our deaths—but only about what we can—the wise spending of this day. Let that be enough for us. Let that be the gift. Not the wealth that televangelists promise or their home shopping version of religion. But the heartfelt wealth of mindfulness. Let us receive what we already have, the gift beyond words given in a single day of being alive together. Kate Bowler writes of it powerfully, in the context of a service just like this one:

I catch [my husband’s] eye as I hold [our son] like a prize lamb, and I can tell he is trying not to cry. . .I hold [our son] up a little higher, so he can wave his frond in the air, and I try to smile as a few tears trickle down my cheeks. I know where Palm Sunday falls in the story. . .Jesus is on a donkey trudging into Jerusalem, people waving their arms in the air, tattered coats thrown down before the One who marches toward His death. It is a celebration. It is a funeral procession. Holding [our son] in my arms, fifteen days from my next scan, I wish I knew the difference.[3]

The truth is, of course, that there is no difference. Kate knows this, but most of the Christians she meets do not. Life is both a celebration and a funeral procession. It is filled with sweetness and grief. It is a gift and also a profound challenge. It is more than one thing at a time. It is something at which we laugh, when someone kills Jesus too early in the service, and it is something at which we cry when our real friends die and we stand in the sanctuary at a loss.

Yet if Jesus is any guide, or if Kate is, then the best thing we can do is walk the path with honesty, courage, and love. That is where the holy is found.

The invitation of this Holy Week, then, is to walk through each day of it, fully present. We will find gifts enough if we do.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (New York: Random House, 2018), 161.

[2] Ibid., 116-119.

[3] Ibid., 111-112.

 

The Blessing of a Broken Dishwasher (Matt. 6.24-34)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

March 18, 2018

 

When the dishwasher broke, I consulted the manual. It was my father’s copy. I pulled it from the shelf and began to read:

Wash the dishes relaxingly, as though each bowl is an object of contemplation. Consider each bowl as sacred. Follow your breath to prevent your mind from straying. Do not try to hurry to get the job over with. Consider washing the dishes the most important thing in life. Washing the dishes is meditation. If you cannot wash the dishes in mindfulness, neither can you meditate while sitting in silence.[1]

I replaced the manual and prepared to wash the dishes by running warm water and soap into a bin while opening the window above the sink. Sunlight streamed across the counter. There was birdsong and a gentle breeze. I remembered the manual’s advice and followed my breath. Breathing in, I felt the ceramic bowls and warm water. Breathing out, I carefully washed each one with a sponge. It was the high point of my day.

I don’t know how long it took to wash the dishes. I wasn’t looking at the clock, I wasn’t listening to the news or the radio, and I wasn’t in a hurry. But once I had finished, I picked up the phone and called the dishwasher repair company. Our dishwasher, chosen by the previous owners of the house, turned out to be fancy, and required a specialist. I was connected to a woman with a strong Eastern European accent. She asked about the make and model and told me my machine was complicated. It would take a few days before someone could come. That’s all right, I told her. We know how to wash dishes. Besides, I like doing them by hand.

Me, too, she said. It’s much more pleasant. Then she began to reminisce on the phone about her childhood and how everyone washed the dishes and dried them together. Many hands made quick work. It was so nice, she said. I agreed. I know, I know. Who needs a dishwasher, anyway? I asked. Nobody, she said. So we’ll see you on Monday. To my great relief, when the technician arrived he had only one of the two needed parts, which necessitated a back order and another week or two of happily washing the dishes by hand. I returned to the manual.

It was a worn copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation. The book was given to my father by a colleague a long time ago and has sat on my shelf for more than 25 years. I consult it for minor home projects and spiritual repairs; it reminds me that most things that break aren’t things I actually need. And it also reminds me of what I do need. At the beginning of the book, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about when he was still a novice monk and his job was to wash the dishes for a community of about 100 people. They did not have enough soap. The water was cold and a large pot had to be boiled for washing. It took a long time. So he learned to treat it as a mindfulness exercise.

“While washing the dishes,” he writes, “one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”[2] This is, in a sense, the most Zen thing he could possibly say for its training of the mind on a single thing in order to bring the practitioner fully present. In focusing on doing the thing that you are doing, he suggests, you are actually there, in the moment, awake to the only reality that truly belongs to you: the present. Again, he learned this as a novice monk. The idea is not to get to the end of the 100 bowls. The idea is to be conscious, one bowl at a time.

This kind of wisdom, the non-worrying kind, is not unique to Zen, though that strand of Buddhism has made an art of sayings and practices that evoke a present-centered mindfulness. It also exists within our Christian tradition, or at least some of the sayings Jesus offered, like the verses we’ve heard today. Look at the birds of the air, he says, and consider the lilies of the field. They are not consumed by anything but the present; they do not fritter their lives away with worry. He says this in the context of a larger discourse on the impossibility of serving two masters. No one can love what is sacred and what is not at the same time, he teaches. Only one of them can hold our devotion. So love God in the way a lily or a sparrow would. Which is a lovely thing to say. If only he would elaborate.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard actually does elaborate. In his own writing on this passage, he says that there is actually a particular way we ought to be like the birds and the lilies. We should be quiet.

“From the lily and bird as teachers,” he writes, “let us learn silence, or learn to keep silent.”[3] He goes on to say that silence matters for us because we are such wordy creatures to begin with. We are always talking, always thinking, always breaking into nature’s great silence with the clumsiness of our words, which prevent us from hearing what is being said so loudly and clearly by the great, shining world all around us. Be quiet! says Kierkegaard. For God’s sake. But that is my paraphrase. What he actually says is, “In the deepest sense, this becoming silent, silent before God, is the beginning of the fear of God, for as the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, so is silence the beginning of the fear of God.”[4] To which we might only add that he is talking about reverence. To fear God is to revere the mystery that the word God so haplessly tries to capture. In the end, according to Kierkegaard, there are no words for it. Only the felt experience that leaves one trembling, mum, awestruck.

And while Kierkegaard isn’t a Zen teacher, for a moment he sounds like one when he writes, “Only by keeping silent does one [ever] encounter the moment. When one speaks, even if one says only a single word, one misses the moment. Silence is the moment.”[5] All our words simply paper over it and keep us from receiving the gift. Which brings us back to the kitchen sink.

As I mentioned, while washing the dishes I could hear birdsong through the window. So it’s not as if birds are completely silent. Yet they are often silent, which I suppose is why we notice their trills. And we are often not silent, which accounts for all the times we don’t. But whether we are talking or listening, there are great messages being relayed, miracles all around us, if you believe Thich Nhat Hanh, Søren Kierkegaard, or the Jesus they both so admired. His kin-dom, as the Gospel of Thomas puts it, is spread out all around us; it’s just that we don’t notice. I guess our dishwashers are too loud.

So the invitation to us, this Lent as we seek to deepen our understanding of peace and our practice of nonviolence, is to slow ourselves down and stop speaking long enough to hear what the silence is saying, to join ourselves in its reverent attention. We may do this while washing the dishes. While brushing our teeth. While driving a car. While lying down at the end of the day. While letting each thing be what it is and attending to it fully so that we are alive in the moment. Simply being in this way has always been one of the hardest things to do. But if each of us was to simply be and to and allow everyone and everything else to simply be, then the kin-dom would indeed be at hand. Not far way. Closer than we ever imagined.

These things are not easy to see. Especially now, in a culture that constantly urges us to rush, buy, spend, and seek — and with technologies engineered to grab at our attention by chiming, beeping, and buzzing with distraction. Even so, sometimes we really are given the chance to see and hear things differently. If we’re lucky, the dishwasher breaks. Or the smartphone does. Or the glint in a child’s eye breaks through. The sound of a friend’s voice. The feel of the breeze through the open window.

Washing the dishes can be everything, says the monk.

Lilies and birds can be our teachers, says the rabbi.

Silence can be a kind of reverence, says the philosopher.

To which we might all fill the sink with soapy water, take a deep breath, and whisper in gratitude. . .

Amen.

 

 

[1] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 85.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, translated and with an introduction by Bruce Kirmmse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 16.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 24.

photo credit: Tasha Childs

 

Sometimes Anger is a Beautiful Thing (John 2.13-16)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

March 4, 2018

 

Her anger was beautiful to behold. Emma González stood in front of the Broward County Courthouse in South Florida and spoke with a fierceness seldom heard in our civic discourse. She was 18 years old, Cuban-American, bisexual, and unapologetic. And she was a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stone Douglas High School in Parkland.

Marjory Stone Douglas was a journalist, a suffragist, and a conservationist who was born in 1890 and lived and spoke out for more than a century. Emma González seemed her rightful heir, speaking angrily into the microphone. Her voice was soft at times, then raised to a shout; her cadence slowed here and there as she wiped tears away, then quickened as her passion flared and she told the grown-ups and the politicians the way it was going to be. She bore witness. She spoke truth to power. She cried and she glared and she said others may say “it is what it is,” but “we call BS.” And it was beautiful to behold. Her eyes glazed with sadness, her head held high and defiant. She would not take the status quo for an answer. She was not resigned.

So it is that the children have come to lead us. They have turned the tables of our apathy with their refusal to countenance adult hypocrisy. You say you love us, they charge. You say you care. But we are dying in our classrooms and not a mumbling law gets changed. We are Columbine. We are Sandy Hook. We are Marjory Stoneman Douglas and a hundred other schools. And we are not afraid. But we are very, very angry.

Most of us remember the anger of youth. The pushback against the rules that make no sense, the world that doesn’t take you seriously, the meanness and downright craziness of our politics. Kids grow up and see what we’ve given them: nuclear arms, the climate crisis, political polarization, structural racism, homophobia, transphobia, and narrow, constrictive ideas about who you can be and how you can love and live. And they call BS, to quote Emma González.

The language is important because it is angry language. They don’t beg to differ. They don’t call our bluff. They call BS. They shout into the microphone that they won’t settle for these regular school shootings. They don’t like the world we’ve made and they’d just assume make a new one. Some better world where kids don’t have to hide under their desks or lock themselves in closets and hope for the best. The anger that they now direct at us, all of us grown-ups, is justified and righteous. There is no pettiness in it; it is deep and substantive. And the best thing I have heard all year, the best thing I have heard in a long time is Emma González’s voice shouting into the microphone. Her anger shines with truth. Of course, she is not the first or the only one to speak.

At the beginning of the Book of John, Jesus shows a flash of righteous anger. He travels to Jerusalem during Passover and finds money changers in the temple there. They are making a profit from pilgrims exchanging coins with Caesar’s head on them to coins acceptable for temple offering, and Jesus sees their venture as a cynical way to cash in on the earnestly religious. He fashions a whip, a detail unique to John, and drives them out in anger. Take these things out of here! he says. This is not a marketplace. Put another way, stop making money on the backs of people. This is meant to be a holy place, a place of worship and communion, not a place to be cheapened by buying and selling. Jesus is a young man, full of idealism and angry at those who do not share it. Some things matter more than money, he says. Some things are sacred. He sounds like Emma González calling out the NRA.

It’s interesting to note that only John places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; the synoptic gospels link this episode with his last days. In either case he is a young man, but in John’s story he is youngest of all. His anger is similar to Emma’s; he can’t stand the cynicism of grown-ups. Which brings me to all of us who are grown-ups.

I stand before you 13 years older than Jesus ever was, a full 28 years older than Emma González; a grown-up, guilty as charged. Yet I am listening to the truths they are telling. And the implicit questions they are asking, which are: Where is your own anger? And why will you not let it speak? And I stand before you as one raised by Southern parents, who prized politeness, gentleness, and caring speech. So anger has never come naturally to me, or at least the expression of anger has not. Some of you come from other backgrounds where anger was the lingua franca and tenderness the challenge. But, in any case, we are all called by the young ones to find our healthy anger and to speak it, shout it, into the microphone. And by healthy anger I mean anger that is substantive—grief about the mess we’ve made of things, love for the ones who are suffering, fear of the damage we may still do, hope, dreams, and imaginings of the ways the world still might be if we only, only would stop being so apathetic and would take the risk of trying to change it.

Isn’t that what Jesus was asking, when he turned over the tables? That young, angry Jesus, who couldn’t stand the commodification of religion or the commercialization of people’s earnest attempts at faith. Yes, I believe that’s what he was asking, when he turned over the tables. He was asking us to follow him. To be young and angry again, for all the right reasons. To be idealistic and believe that his kin-dom could come, could be made right here, starting in our hearts and spreading into the streets.

He raged against the way things were. He asked us to join him, in righteous indignation.

Yet in order to join him, we must attend to the tension our anger brings, that it become creative and not destructive. The anger that Jesus tapped into was nothing more than a deep love for every sister and brother and an anguish at their current suffering. And he let it flow in deeply creative, loving, risky ways until his anger, and the anger of others, made a movement. It was so beautiful to behold that we still can’t take our eyes away.

The invitation remains. It is offered to us by our youth. From Jesus to Emma and everyone in between. Let us be angry with injustice. Let us be angry with violence. Let us be angry with cynicism. Let us be angry with excuses. And let us use our anger to speak something more beautiful into existence, to let it be born in us, here and now. Because part of working for peace is learning to channel our anger in healthy ways. In faith, we seek to do that. We pray that our anger might be beautiful to behold.

Amen.

 

I’m posting the short paper I offered as part of a panel in Chicago last weekend. My paper was entitled “Existential Courage is for Everybody: Cornel West’s Prophetic Pragmatism as the Ground for a Grassroots Movement.” It followed two very fine papers by doctoral students at the Divinity School — Foster Pinkney’s “I Can’t Breathe: Black Prophetic Utterance and the Continuing Influence of ‘Race Matters'” and Russell Johnson’s “Unrest: The Implacability of Cornel West.” After our presentations, Dr. West spoke and we sat together for a panel discussion. I’m grateful to the University of Chicago Divinity School Ethics Club for the invitation and my colleagues for the rich and inspiring conversation. Here are my remarks:

 

Existential Courage is for Everybody: Cornel West’s Prophetic

Pragmatism as the Ground for a Grassroots Movement

 

In Charleston, South Carolina we are engaged in a prolonged struggle for racial justice. Our Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a multiracial, interfaith collective of 28 congregations now in its 6th year, has pushed through significant policy changes and faced innumerable critics. These policy changes have included increasing early childhood literacy classes, reducing youth arrests, teaching restorative justice practices in schools, and winning an audit of our police department for racial bias in policing practices. Along the way we have buried Walter Scott, the Mother Emanuel Nine, and, just this month, our local leader in the Movement for Black Lives, Muhiyyidin Moye d’Baha. The work has been difficult for many of our members, ordinary, often private people, learning to withstand an extraordinary amount of public criticism. I argue that the philosophy and ethic of Cornel West have grounded us for the work in Charleston and may do the same for others in this moment.

At one of the first public gatherings of our Charleston Area Justice Ministry, we began with Cornel West’s admonition, “justice is what love looks like in public.”[1] This articulation, that all our work is simply an expression of love, has since become a kind of mantra. Across the lines of faith and tradition, we hold to this ethic of love and understand our work for justice as its public expression. We are grounded, then, in love, and this ground has helped us not only to weather the strong criticism of public officials resisting change, but to respond to that criticism with words of love for our sisters and brothers, whose lived experiences of suffering brought us to the work in the first place. Grounded in the ethic that “justice is what love looks like in public,” our people have developed a deep and staying sense of solidarity. Yet this is simply the first way Cornel West’s work has inspired and informed our own.

In his book, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, Dr. West outlines three critical practices that infuse our grassroots work for change: Socratic questioning, prophetic critique, and the tragicomic commitment to hope. Each of these practices has been an implicit help to us in Charleston, a city whose habits and patterns of racism and the system of decorum developed to avoid talking about it were “baked in” from the beginning, to use Eddie Glaude’s term.[2] To visit Charleston is to find a deeply romanticized view of the antebellum South and a whitewashed version of American history marketed to the tourists who fill our streets and restaurants. The proponent of slavery John C. Calhoun stands atop a great pedestal in the center of our city, while a statue to the black freedom fighter Denmark Vesey, only recently erected, remains hidden from view behind the bushes in a park several miles away. It is the perfect context for Socratic questioning, which Dr. West defines as “a relentless self-examination and critique of institutions of authority motivated by an endless quest for intellectual integrity and moral consistency.”[3] The Socratic commitment questions the status quo in an attempt to wake people from sleepwalking uncritically through the days. According to both Socrates and Dr. West, such a commitment may make us unpopular, and in Charleston we have found that to be true.

Having established our unpopularity, we move to the practice of prophetic critique. Rooted in the Hebrew tradition, this form of speech bears witness to the suffering of others and identifies itself with what Rabbi Heschel called the “divine pathos” or the broken and bruised heart of God.[4] Dr. West relates the prophetic demand to “[call] attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery. . .[and highlight] personal and institutional evil, including especially the evil of being indifferent. . .”[5] This idea that we must call attention, again that we must love in public, lies at the heart of our justice ministry’s effort. The opposite of love in public, of course, is not hate, but indifference. In Charleston, our fiercest opponents have not been the vocal racists who gather to wave Confederate banners, but the “silent good people” and absent “white moderates” of whom Dr. King wrote in his Birmingham cell. Prophetic critique calls attention to suffering and calls out the indifference of the many who are silent.

Yet we must also carry ourselves lightly as we do the work in order to prevent social and spiritual burnout. To this end, we refer to Dr. West’s understanding of tragicomic hope. He defines this as a “profound attitude toward life. . .a black interpretation. . .open to people of all colors. . .[that] expresses righteous indignation with a smile and deep inner pain without bitterness or revenge.”[6] To participate in such hope is not to believe that everything will be easy or all right, nor is it to know that we will see the end of the work, which we most certainly will not; rather, tragicomic hope invites us to draw from the deep reservoir of American writers and artists, whose honest words and witness buoy us for the struggle. Dr. West’s work itself is shot through with references to everyone from Herman Melville to Toni Morrison, John Coltrane to Jill Scott. As he relies on the tragicomic hope, resistance, and resilience in these voices, so do we.

These critical practices of Socratic questioning, prophetic critique, and the tragicomic commitment to hope have guided our work in Charleston. Yet at the heart of it all lies Dr. West’s pragmatism. In his writing and activism, we both hear and see an embodied public witness to this philosophical tradition through a type of Jamesian existential courage. In his essay “Is Life Worth Living?” William James put forth the question and then suggested that the answer was maybe. Maybe life is worth living if we live it in a certain way. This way would not resist the sufferings and hardships of our lived experience, which, in James’ words do not “abate the love of life” but “give it a keener zest”[7]; it would rather treat life as a real fight, a struggle for something worthwhile. In James’ well-known rendering, “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe, which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts. . .”[8]

This is the ethic I argue is practiced by Dr. West: an ethic of living life as if it matters, answering the Jamesian maybe with a yes, choosing to struggle for the redemption of this world, this moment, and, ultimately ourselves. His answer to the existential question is not certainty but love. He works out of love and he asks us to do the same, knowing that to do so requires us to risk without promising reward; that is, unless the reward is simply spending the days that we have meaningfully and well.

James alluded to the risk we take in life with the image of a mountain pass with which he ended his essay “The Will to Believe.” “We stand on a mountain pass,” he wrote:

in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . .[9]

In response to James’ invitation, Dr. West invites us to “[step] out on nothing,”[10] as it were, to dare to take the risk by invoking a kind of faith. This faith may not be traditional, certainly not the Constantinian collusion with the status quo that Dr. West has critiqued so effectively, but rather faith in truth telling, ethical consistency, artistic expression, and radical love. It is a faith that is rooted in American philosophy and the lived experience of sisters and brothers throughout our history. It is a faith that we desperately need in this moment, when so much is at stake for our democracy and our world.

Perhaps the greatest resource Dr. West has given us is his own lived example. As we seek to develop workers for justice and deepen our own understanding of why and how we engage in the prolonged struggle to create a more just and equitable world, we can look to the way he has embodied Jamesian courage and zest throughout a lifetime as a public intellectual and activist. He calls us to join him in living our own responses to James’ question, living not only as if our lives mattered, but as if they are vital constitutive elements of a larger effort. He equips us to look forward from this moment by returning us to deeply American philosophical roots and cultural and artistic resources to sustain us.

After six years of work in Charleston, we are aware that the struggle has just begun. Yet grounded in Dr. West’s idea that “justice is what love looks like in public,” we will continue to do the work every day, in love. Ultimately, as Curtis Mayfield sang, this “love for the people” is “good for the soul.”[11]

 

 

[1] Cornel West, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom (New York: SmileyBooks, 2008), 181.

[2] Eddie Glaude, “Imagination is the Battlefield,” Circular Congregational Church, May 14, 2016, accessible online at http://www.circularchurch.org/glaude.

[3] Cornel West: Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), 16.

[4] See Albert Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 8-10.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] William James, “Is Life Worth Living?” in Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), 230.

[8] Ibid., 240.

[9] William James, “The Will to Believe” in Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), 218.

[10] West, Hope on a Tightrope, pp.

[11] Curtis Mayfield, “Love for the People,” There’s No Place Like America Today, (Curtom Records 5001, 1975).

 

Giving Up Respectability for Lent (Mk. 10.42-44)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

February 11, 2018

 

In the photo

he walks

and hollers

one hand

raised

the other

holding

a drum.

 

He is not

alone

we walk

with him

but he is

one

of a kind.

 

For years

he spoke

drummed

sang

and prayed

on the streets

of our city

in the field

where

our brother fell

outside

the church

of our Charleston

martyrs.

 

Now he joins

his music

to the song

of the ancestors

whose voices

were always

at his back.

 

He was more

in tune

with these

vibrations

than the

measured beats

of convention

and he did not

answer

the status quo

but something

more sacred.

 

The old poet wrote,

“If a man does not

keep pace

with his companions,

perhaps it is because

he hears a different

drummer.

Let him step

to the music

which he hears,

however measured

or far away.”[1]

 

Our brother

not only heard

a different drummer

he was

a different drummer

and the memory

of his life

still beats

for freedom.

 

Rest in power,

Muhiyyidn.

You walked

unafraid.

 

This morning we gather for Mardi Gras Sunday, which is a time we are meant to celebrate and sing and join a frivolous parade before we begin the contemplative season of Lent. It’s a Sunday we look forward to every year because it is more fun than other Sundays. We dance. We wear paper crowns. We throw beads. And we’ve done those things today. But we also begin by naming that for some of us the service feels a little like a second line, a New Orleans-style funeral for our brother, Muhiyyidin. We learned just this week of his death in New Orleans. And we have been grieving deeply for this man, who was the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement in greater Charleston. Muhiyiddin was a friend to many of us, and he was no stranger to this place.

We remember him at the back of the sanctuary talking to James Cone. We remember him upstairs in the Wingard Room leading a drum circle. We remember him talking with us in the churchyard, telling truths in the presence of the ancestors. And, of course, we remember walking with him in parades. Standing with him at protests. Hearing him speak, voice full of anguish, anger, compassion, and clarity. He had a message. And let’s be clear that not everyone wanted to hear it.

The Black Lives Matter message has never been respectable to the status quo. And it makes little difference whether it was Colin Kaepernick taking a knee or Muhiyyidn d’Baha picking up a bullhorn, the pushback to the Movement for Black Lives has been fierce. But someone once said that prophets are never honored in their own homes. And to take the side of the suffering has never been respectable. So as we remember our brother, let’s remember and celebrate that he was not interested in being respectable. He was interested in more than that.

This fits well within the context of our jazz service because the music we are listening to this morning is not respectable music. In her novel Jazz, Toni Morrison calls it lowdown music. Jazz played songs “that used to start in the head and filled the heart [and] dropped on down. . .Lower and lower, until the music was so lowdown you had to shut your windows and just suffer the summer sweat. . .”[2] Jazz got people moving, it was the music of all their lived experiences improvised into a song so visceral and true that you felt it in your limbs. It was an embodied song. It contained within it all the spirituals and the blues, but also the present moment, for jazz always responds to where it is, and so no jazz performance is like the last one because no day is like the last one. It’s the same with us this Mardi Gras Sunday. Today’s music has some blues in it for our brother. And something cathartic and inspired.

Muhiyyidin was a rabble-rouser. He was a troublemaker. He was an agitator. But those aren’t my words about him. Those are Martin Luther King’s words about Jesus. For every prophet that comes home gets called those things. King certainly knew it. And he spoke of it in one of his last sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered just two months before he died. You may be familiar with that sermon, but if you are not, I commend to you a collection of King’s writings entitled The Radical King, edited by Cornel West. The book is a beautiful volume of the least respectable things King ever said. If you read it, you will hear a brother marching to the beat of his own drum, which is what he was talking about in the sermon.

Dr. King took as his text Mark Chapter 10, and we’ve read from that today. In it, Jesus’ students James and John are competing for who might sit at his side in a place of honor. King referred to this as the drum major instinct. On some level, he said, “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”[3] This is a feature of ego that we each possess, and we should look within ourselves to examine it before we rush to judge James and John. King then expanded on the drum major instinct and how it affects our lives, our relationships, our nation states, and even our religious institutions. Too often we want to get ahead at the expense of others. The drive of ego becomes twisted and misshapen. Yet our faith teaches something else.

Jesus had a different valuation of greatness, something far less conventionally respectable. According to King:

He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”[4]

Jesus transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. As the old author of Mark adds, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”[5] Which is a powerful word for us as we look toward the season of Lent.

At the heart of the gospel lies a song that is not respectable. Jesus came at the wrong time in the wrong way to the wrong people. His religion embraced those at the margins and defied social and cultural boundaries. Just think of his kin-dom: fishers, women, children, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, enemies, outcasts. . . And who gave him the hardest time but religious people? Even so, he sang a song of liberation, and he invited everyone to lay down their need for respectability, to transform the drum major instinct so that it served not the one, but the many. In King’s own powerful conclusion:

If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.[6]

But the shallow things are so respectable. And conventional music always pleases the crowd.

It’s an invitation to ask, this Mardi Gras Sunday, as we move into the season of Lent: What will we give of our own lives that contributes to justice, peace, and righteousness? What respectability will we risk to stand with black lives, immigrant families, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, and the peacemakers of the earth? What will we learn when we move beyond our small egos to embrace a greater whole? What music will we hear if we really attune ourselves to this moment?

The questions, of course, are not rhetorical. They ask a sacrifice. But, oh, what they offer in return. Let us follow their drumbeat together.

Amen.

 

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 305.

[2] Toni Morrison, Jazz (New York: Vintage International, 2004), 56.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” in The Radical King, edited and introduced by Cornel West (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), 254.

[4] Ibid., 261.

[5] Mark 10.43b, New Revised Standard Version.

[6] King, “The Drum Major Instinct,” 264.

 

Living Like There are 4-Year-Olds Watching (Lk. 2.41-47)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 28, 2018

 

Last weekend I read an Op-Ed that was better than any sermon. It appeared in the Saturday edition of The New York Times, and it was written by a favorite author, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen. It was entitled, “What I’ve Learned from My 4-Year-Old.” I’d like to begin with a short excerpt of Nguyen’s essay. He writes of the way his consciousness has changed under the gaze of a young boy:

. . .I took a walk after dinner. . .with my wife and son, and a man pushing a shopping cart loaded with his belongings asked me for the box of leftovers I had in my hand. I hesitated. It had half a pizza that my son would surely demand as soon as it was bedtime, but I gave it to the man, along with $2. My wife observed that I would not normally do such a thing.

But I had been doing such things whenever my son was with me, rolling down the window of my car when he was in his Batman car seat behind me, so I could give an old man on the median a dollar. I wanted to teach my son a lesson about generosity, and I wanted to be, in his eyes, a kind person.

He is cognizant and curious about morality and ethics, at the level of preschool behaviors, parent-child negotiations, apocalyptic superhero conflicts and science fiction wars. As most parents would, I have tried to teach him about giving, sharing, listening and empathy. And yet in my own life, away from his gaze, I have sometimes failed in all those respects.[1]

Nguyen’s essay is beautifully confessional in that he simultaneously shows his best and worst sides, naming the struggle to become the kind of person his son thinks he is, even when his son is not there. It got me thinking, both as a parent and a person of faith, about who I am when my own son is not watching, about who any of us are when we think the children can’t see. In my case, as in Nguyen’s, there is nothing particularly damning about the question. We’re both relatively good people, probably not that terrible when we’re alone. Only perhaps a bit more selfish and a bit less charitable, more likely to think or speak angrily, not as inclined to examine our behaviors and ask ourselves, as we constantly do when our children are around, how something might look or sound and what example it might set.

I smiled all week as I held Nguyen’s essay in mind. I realized how pleasant it was to pretend that my son was always sitting next to me while I wrote, or was a member of the committee I was attending, or was listening as I called my representative, or was reading the newspaper over my shoulder and hearing what I muttered in response. And I smiled because some years ago there was a fad in Christian circles involving the letters WWJD, which were meant to represent the question: What would Jesus do? I never much cared for that question because people seemed to simply project their own desires onto it and then justify whatever it was they were already doing or not doing. This week I wondered how nice it would have been if the letters were WWYDIAFYOKWW: What would you do if a 4-year-old kid were watching? It’s a better question, honestly, and one we’re far less likely to use to justify anything we feel like. For when kids are watching, we are aware of their gaze. We know they are taking everything in. If we cuss the bullies, why wouldn’t they? If we can’t put down our screens, why should they? If we eat and drink in unhealthy ways, why won’t they? If we don’t mediate or pray, why will they? If we don’t work for justice and peace, why should they? And so very quickly they become our teachers. Under their gaze, we look at ourselves differently. Just ask Viet Thanh Nguyen. “While our religions instruct us to behave ourselves,” he writes:

I find that my son teaches me, too, even as I teach him. What have I learned from our relationship this year? That we must believe in what is good and right, without demonizing those that we oppose; that we must fight for what we believe in, without recourse to hate or insults; that we must give, in ways great and small, to distant organizations and the people we meet face to face; that we must connect to others who believe as we do, and grow our values and our organizations; that we must write and read what is meaningful, and ignore the morass of public opinion and media-induced emotions.[2]

All of these are lessons the Pulitzer Prize-winner took from the 4-year-old in the Batman car seat. Yet they are all so true. And it makes me wonder what the world would be like, or at least what our own world in church or at home would be like, if we simply lived every moment as if a 4-year-old were watching.

We have few stories of Jesus as a boy. Most of the gospel narratives move quickly from his birth to the beginning of his public ministry. The church year does, too. The space between the Christmas season and the Easter season always seems so short to me. One minute Jesus is born and the next he’s meeting John the Baptist, being tempted in the wilderness, and walking off toward the end of the story. Wait, I always wonder. Where is his childhood? Where are those, “happy, unrecoverable days” to use Tolstoy’s language?[3] But we only have them as a whisper. Funny thing is, the spare portrait we get of the boy Jesus is that of teacher. He’s not quite a 4-year-old in a Batman car seat, but he’s the next best thing. Listen to this.

In the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are told of a time Jesus’ parents took him to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. In the story, he is twelve, still a child but only just. Even so, he’s too young to do what he does, which is get lost, causing his parents to panic when they start back home and realize he isn’t with them. They return to Jerusalem, look everywhere for him until they find him in the temple instructing the old ones in the ways of faith. He is, the text says, surrounded by teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. And they are amazed at his intelligence and insight, smiling at the prescience and wisdom of his answers.

Here we might just pause and give a shout out to every child who has ever put questions to his or her Sunday School teachers. In a recent conversation with Tyler Ung, our new Director of Children’s Education, I asked him about his own spiritual formation as a boy. He offered some beautiful impressions of growing up, but one, in particular, stuck with me. He remembered, all these years later, a time when he asked a question in church and felt that his question wasn’t taken seriously. I don’t know if he was 4-years-old, twelve, or somewhere in between at the time, but he was watching his teachers. And he picked up right away when they treated him like a kid. It underscored what philosopher Gareth Matthews once wrote, that all too often when it comes to children, we devalue “their thought, their sensibility, their experience, and the works of their creation.”[4] To the extent that we devalue these things in children, we devalue them in ourselves as well. So it is refreshing to hear the opposite in our sacred stories. Jesus as a boy was taken very seriously by the adults in the room. He went into the temple presumably to sit at their feet, after which they sat at his. If only the rest of us could learn to do the same.

We can only imagine that the boy Jesus taught things that were childlike versions of what he would teach later in life, a vision that never lost its imagination. It was always the kind of thing that was safe to teach to children. Well, sort of. In her memoir of childhood, Annie Dillard once asked if grown-ups had ever realized how “wildly opposed” the Christian vision really was to their world.[5] Because the Christian vision always operated as if 4-year-olds were in the room. It was Montessori religion at its best. Use your words. Share what you have. Cooperate with others. Be creative. Sit in circles of inclusion. Listen to everyone’s stories. And judge choices but never people. Some choices are healthy, some choices are harmful, but every boy and girl is good at heart and can learn to make more healthy choices than harmful ones. Isn’t that the gospel in a nutshell? And doesn’t it run counter, sometimes, to our violent culture that demeans and devalues people and the earth day after day?

The beauty, of course, in language both Montessori and Christian, is that we can always try again. And it matters not if we have a 4-year-old or if we just remember being a 4-year-old. In either case, we can tune in to our original impulses of kindness, fairness, compassion, and generosity. We can remember the power of words to soothe and heal. We can rejoice in the stories we tell and retell, preferably at bedtime. We can commit ourselves to living in peace together, managing our strong emotions through art, play, exercise, through laughter and tears, but never violence. We can eat snacks, take naps, and be good to our bodies. And God knows we can switch off our screens. We can go for a walk in the woods or on the beach and get a sense of our smallness against the world’s wonder. Living like 4-year-olds are watching, or like we are watching ourselves, is very good living indeed. And it may be the key to our moment. “If we all do this,” Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds:

. . .perhaps we can change our country, even in the face of entrenched power, the oligarchy of billionaires, the fear and hatred of those who feel powerless. It will take years to stop the tax cuts and the environmental assault, and it make take forever to stop our forever wars and to dismantle racism and patriarchy. But we can stop the moral and political degradation. We can say: Me, too, or I support you. We can say: Enough. We can say: What can I do?[6]

And these things will be easy to remember. If we ever forget, we can just reread Luke Chapter 2. Or write WWYDIAFYOKWW on our hand. Or find a kid in a Batman car seat and ask. For we are their teachers, and they are ours. Today friends, let us embrace this truth and live within it.

Amen.

 

[1] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “What I’ve Learned from My 4-Year-Old,” The New York Times, January, 20, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/20/opinion/sunday/what-ive-learned-from-my-4-year-old.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 54.

[4] Gareth Matthews, The Philosophy of Childhood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 123-124.

[5] Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: HarperPerennial, 1988), 134.

[6] Nguyen, “What I’ve Learned from My 4-Year-Old.”

bumper sticker, Kailua, Hawaiʻi

 

In the Belly of the Beast (Jonah 3.1-5, 10)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 21, 2018

 

Last week friends in Hawaiʻi received an emergency text message on their phones. It warned of an incoming ballistic missile strike. This is not a drill, it read. As we now know, the message had been sent in error, but a follow-up message was not sent for 38 minutes, during which time Hawaiʻi residents waited for the end of the world.

I read the news and was badly shaken by it. I reached for the phone and called my old friend Charles, just to hear his voice. He told me what it had been like to receive the message. His husband had gone to an early meeting in Honolulu and called home. They said goodbye. Aloha. And they waited. Other friends, Charles said, simply went outside. They knew there was nowhere to hide.

When the news came that it had all been a false alarm, Hawaiʻi began to breathe again. But hundreds of thousands of people had all had a near death experience. And they lived to tell about it. Certain destruction was at hand and then it passed. I hung up the phone with Charles, his voice still ringing in my ears. I have cried off and on all week since.

In part this is because Hawaiʻi is so dear to me. The place that was under threat is my original home place, and to me one of the most beautiful places on earth. And the people there were my earliest friends and teachers. So what was at risk was something deeply personal to me. Yet I was also so shaken because it brought something to the surface that I have been increasingly worried about. What scared us all, I think, was the idea that a nuclear war had become plausible once again. When people in Hawaiʻi received the emergency text message, it confirmed something they had already imagined. In a moment of heightened tension between the U. S. and North Korea, when both of our nations are governed by vain and impulsive men, many of us have lost sleep over the renewed likelihood of a nuclear conflict.

This is not something we talk about much in my experience, though we have lived with it my entire life. It is something that our church has taken a stand on, in the 1980s, in particular, when we joined the call for a nuclear freeze.[1] During the height of the Cold War, when our town was home to a ballistic missile submarine base, Circular joined the call for an end to the arms race. Not many churches have, then or now. But the threat never went away, and we have been reminded of it once again. Just last week, after the false alarm in Hawaiʻi, The New York Times reported on the newly proposed Nuclear Posture Review, which would expand the list of scenarios in which we would launch nuclear weapons to include things like cyberattacks on the U. S. and also create new classes of smaller nuclear weapons deemed more usable by military planners. Andrew Weber, a former assistant defense secretary in the previous administration, said if the new policy is adopted, it will “make nuclear war a lot more likely.”[2] So these are scary times, friends. And it’s not always easy to know how to live during days like these. We want to be honest about where we are. We want to tell the truth and raise the alarm. And we also want to live meaningfully and well, to experience the joy of each day and not have all of it stolen by worry.

We were trying to do just that on one of our family movie nights last year. I had been worrying about the U. S. and North Korea, and, rather than trying to run from my worry, I selected something to help us laugh in the face of it. In a masterstroke of either really good or really bad parenting, I dug out an old copy of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.” The film was Kubrick’s attempt to get us all to start thinking about the risks of nuclear war, but he knew that if he made something as serious as the subject no one would watch it; it would be too much to take. So he made a comedy. It works thanks to the brilliance and improvisation of Peter Sellers, who plays an everyman British captain, a deadpan American president, and a warped German scientist, the mania of George C. Scott, who is militarism personified, and the rodeo clown drawl of Slim Pickens, who by all accounts never really knew that the film was a comedy. And it also works because, as critic David Bromwich writes, “A constant strength of the movie is the way that incidents, characters, or particular lines of dialogue straddle the boundary between the fantastic and the all too real.”[3] It is this quality, I think, that proves cathartic. We laugh at the absurdity of the film and, while we are laughing, realize that this is the world we live in. Or as Bromwich says, “it prompts a kind of laughter that may lead us back to thought.”[4]

I hadn’t really considered watching “Dr. Strangelove” as a spiritual practice until the past week, when its humor helped me with my own anxiety. My son does a really good impression of Peter Sellers as the U. S. president on the phone with the Russian premier warning him of an accidental nuclear attack. “Well, let me finish, Dmitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it?” His impression makes me laugh every time. And it conjures an image of the scene in which it was shot, which took place in a cavernous underground war room. The set that Kubrick had built was “100 feet by 130 feet, with a ceiling 35 feet high,” near to pitch black with a circle of fluorescent light above the hapless president and his generals.[5] It looked like the belly of the beast. So when I glanced at the lectionary texts this week, with Hawaiʻi and “Dr. Strangelove” in mind, I was almost comforted to see the Book of Jonah there.

Jonah is considered one of the 12 so-called minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible. These aren’t the big ones that everyone’s heard of like Isaiah and Jeremiah; they are the smaller books like Nahum, Habakkuk, and Malachi. Yet Jonah is significantly different from the other minor prophets in that it is almost entirely narrative. Rather than the usual series of oracles, Jonah tells a story. And, according to Hebrew scholar Ehud Ben Zvi, it is a story that “uses humor and elements of satire and parody” as its didactic forms.[6] It teaches us through a story that is, in many ways, ridiculous. Surely Stanley Kubrick would have understood. Because when we laugh at Jonah we are laughing at ourselves.

Our reading is drawn from Chapter 3 of the book, but it might help to remember the entire story. It’s a short story, only four pages in my Hebrew Study Bible, and it goes like this: Jonah is called to prophesy and runs from the call. He tries to escape by sea, but the God character is angered and stirs a storm on the waters. The crew become worried and Jonah explains what is happening, at which point they all decide that throwing him overboard is the only way to calm the storm. They do, he sinks and is then swallowed by a great fish. Yet in the belly of the beast Jonah does the strangest thing. He sings. And his song is a song of praise to the God that saved him. Afterwards, the fish spits him out, the people hear his prophetic message, and they all change. This happens in Chapter 3. “The people of Nineveh believed. . .They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.”[7] God saw what they did, we are told, and had a change of heart. “God renounced the punishment [that had been planned]. . .and did not carry it out.”[8]

This is one of the most powerful changes of heart in our sacred stories. God, who had threatened to destroy a people who were living in wicked ways, saw them change and so God changed, too. The text implies that God hadn’t wanted to do it, anyway, and was quick to call it off. The story should have ended there, but its satire continues. Jonah, for his part, is angry at God for not carrying out the punishment. He seems to have been rooting for destruction. What is wrong with him, we may wonder. At which point we realize we are asking what is wrong with all of us?

For we live in a world with a great appetite for destruction. According to Eric Schlosser in his book Command and Control, the U. S. now holds approximately 4600 nuclear weapons.[9] Russia has nearly as many at perhaps 3700. Which is to say nothing of France, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. A new arms race is underway and there can only be so many false alarms. Schlosser’s book is a documentary history of half a century’s worth of accidents and near misses. To read it is to spend 500 pages in the belly of the beast. Which might not be a bad thing. Just ask anyone in Hawaiʻi if we should be taking this more seriously. Ask Stanley Kubrick, whose classic film raised the question. Ask your own heart, when you climb into bed at night, lying in the dark like Jonah. How might we respond to this moment? How might we challenge our most destructive impulses? What new song might we sing?

I think the only thing we can do is sing a different song. Jonah, in the belly of the beast, did not sing a song of despair or cynicism. Yes, later he turned out to be a bit of a pill because the old Hebrew author wanted to have some fun and leave us with a few questions. But in his darkest moment, Jonah sang a song of love and praise. He gave thanks for his life and for its many gifts. He sang of the mystery that held and saved him. He grounded himself in the life that he had, even though the water was deep and his future uncertain.

I wonder if we might learn to do the same. For we have been living in the belly of the beast for a while now. Our country is wicked in all the ways the prophets spoke against. We neglect the poor, we fatten the rich, we make war and worship money and power, turning our backs on what is truly sacred. And we are called, like Jonah, to speak a different word. We can run from it, as he did, but ultimately we’ve all got to decide which song we’re going to sing. Will we hum along with culture and convention? Or will we sing something subversive and satirical? Will we make fun of ourselves as the author of Jonah did, asking what is wrong with us that we would live this way? Maybe we could even learn to sing the God character’s song, saying we don’t want to destroy it all, anyway. We want to save it. We want to savor it.

It’s not an easy thing to do, I know. But sometimes when we sing in the belly of the beast, the song is so heartfelt that it spreads. Today, in our time, may it be so with us.

Amen.

 

[1] Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History (Charleston: The History Press, 2008), 121-122.

[2] David Sanger and William Broad, “Pentagon Suggests Countering Devastating Cyberattacks with Nuclear Arms,” The New York Times, January 16, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/us/politics/pentagon-nuclear-review-cyberattack-trump.html.

[3] David Bromwich, “Dr. Strangelove: The Darkest Room,” June 28, 2016, posted at The Criterion Collection website, accessed online at https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4119-dr-strangelove-the-darkest-room.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ehud Ben Zvi, “Introduction to Jonah,” The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1198.

[7] Jonah 3.5, The Jewish Study Bible.

[8] Jonah 3.10b.

[9] Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 476-477.

 

Whose Side Are We On? (Matt. 2.1-12)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 7, 2018

 

Last June I stepped onto a Berlin sidestreet and passed through an archway into a quiet courtyard. No one was there, but a sign announced the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, the German Resistance Memorial Center.[1] I had gone by myself, leaving my family picnicking in the park. I suppose it was a pilgrimage. I opened the door to the Resistance Center and ascended two flights of stairs. A woman met me there, and we had an awkward conversation in halting German as I learned that the center’s exhibition rooms were self-guided. She showed me how to access the English version of the tour and I was off.

The center was as quiet as the courtyard. I walked through rooms alone, hearing the boards creak beneath me. The rooms detailed the rise of fascism in Germany, the consolidation of power, the subversion of democratic norms, and the complicity of political and religious leaders. I visited every room, but there was one, in particular, I had come to see. Room 5 was entitled “Resistance Out of Christian Faith.” It contained images of the pastors, women religious, and laypeople, who resisted the Nazis out of conviction as followers of Jesus. When I entered the room, I took a deep breath. I was sorry to see how small it was.

A few figures were familiar. The German theologian Karl Barth, for example. And the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose quote was prominently displayed. “Step out from fearful hestitation,” it said, “into the tempest of events. . .”[2] But the rest of the photos showed people I had not known. I read their names. Gertrud Luckner. Rupert Mayer. Elisabeth Schmitz. Hermann Stöhr. Katharina Staritz. And their stories. They hid Jews, they forged documents, they spoke out against what their government was doing. Many were sent to camps for what they did in conscience.

I was deeply inspired by these examples, and I walked out of the center in a pensive mood. It wasn’t that long ago, I thought, that people in the city where I stood had to make a choice. Whose side were they on?

It has long been said in political and philosophical circles that anytime one brings up the Nazis an argument is automatically lost. They are evil straw men, we are told, and to fall back on that time reflects a certain laziness of thought. Yet after spending time in Berlin, I wasn’t so sure. The few Berliners with whom I spoke suggested there was much to be learned from recent history. And they meant there is much for Americans to learn in the context of our moment. No one suggested that the U. S. had become a fascist state, but everyone warned that it didn’t take much for democracies to slip away. It had happened many times, Germans said. It could happen anywhere.

Yet I was also thinking of the role of faith. How was it that the vast majority of German Christians went along with things? So many were silent. So many did nothing. Why was there only a single room of Christians in the Resistance Center? You could learn all their names in an hour. And what might that mean for us, we who live in a tumultuous time? I don’t have to tell you that no sooner did I get home than Nazi flags were waving in Charlottesville and our president was again trying to ban Muslims from the country. The majority of our churches, I think, have been as quiet as German parishes all those years ago. Well, except for a few.

Sadly, the most public statement made by American Christians last year may have been what was called the Nashville Statement.[3] The Nashville Statement was put together by a coalition of conservative Christians calling themselves the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. They released the statement in August to a flurry of media attention. In its Preamble it stated, “Evangelical Christians. . .find themselves living in a period of historic transition. . .Western culture. . .has embarked on a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.”[4] The statement goes on to say that human identity, including gender and sexuality, are fixed according to a divine plan, and that no variation is permissible. What follows are 14 articles of belief, almost all of which have to do with sexuality, affirming heteronormativity and denying any place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer people. It may be the most deeply homophobic and transphobic document I’ve ever read. And it was released to the media as a “Christian” document.

What struck me when I read it was how little it had to do with Christianity. There was hardly a word about Jesus, who never mentioned sexuality, or his way, which was deeply concerned with the oppressed and the marginalized of his and every time. There was no hint of love or compassion, no word of welcome in the spirit of faith, no good news in a document that claimed to be evangelical. Rather, it was a kind of rulebook, laying out a single right way to be a person. If there was a fascist form of faith, then the Nashville Statement was it.

This is a kind of American Christianity that I’ve known my entire life. I have grown weary, at times, of defending myself against it. When people learn I’m a pastor, they still often assume the worst. I have conversational strategies to quickly defuse their assumptions and let them know that I’m safe and friendly, which is a sad thing for a Christian to need to do. It is, as my old professor Jerry Stone said, “If the first rule of nature is eat or be eaten, then the first rule of culture is define or be defined.” As Christians in this moment, we have got to define ourselves. We can’t let the Nashville folks do it for us. Yet there is another town that could help.

At November’s gathering of the American Academy of Religion, another statement was developed. It was called the Boston Declaration and its Preamble was quite different. “As followers of Jesus,” it began, “the Jewish prophet for justice, whose life reminds us to, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. . .we declare that following Jesus today means fighting poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression from the deepest wells of our faith.”[5] The Boston Declaration went on to articulate a clear and bold vision of Christianity for this moment. And far from being homophobic and transphobic, its embrace of all was part of the point. Listen to the declaration’s answer to the question, “Who is our God and what is the Jesus way?”:

We believe in a God who holds all difference within God’s own life and in whom there is no one or no people who are distant from God’s justice, merciful love, and presence. . .We affirm the beauty and humanity of all people in their manifold difference—race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion—as reflecting God’s image through lives of love and hope.

We believe the Jesus Way calls us to the possibility of living in a world where all can love and be loved, and live into joy.

The Jesus Way continues through our best, prayerful, honest, and empirical attempts to understand why and how the world has come to be in the shape it is today. This pathway calls us to act in ways that are Spirit-led and strategic in confronting evil wherever evil exists, to combat ignorance wherever ignorance has led people astray and to place our lives and our bodies on the line with whoever is being threatened, beat down, or oppressed in any way, anywhere.

As followers of Jesus. . .who preached and lived Shalom, and who offers the gift of jubilee to the world, we mourn the coarseness of our politics, the loss of compassion for those in need, the disrespect we routinely show each other, and the thoughtlessness with which we use and abuse our planet. We especially mourn the way in which the name of Jesus has been used to support and encourage actions and attitudes that demean others and threaten the community of creation.[6]

The Boston Declaration moves beautifully from saying who we are to who we are for, spelling out whose side we are on, and asking others to join us. I say us because I was proud to add my name, and I invite you to go online and add yours. But I also say us because the scholars who wrote Boston Declaration wrote it with another declaration in mind, one that is a part of our UCC heritage. In 1934, a few German Christians, including some of our Evangelical and Reformed forbears, wrote what was called the Barmen Declaration. It didn’t have a formal Preamble, but was written quickly and to the point. “In view of the errors of the ‘German Christians’ and of the present Reich Church Administration,” it said, certain things had to be confessed.[7] Then it broke with the Nazis completely.

Above all, the Barmen Declaration was a call to conscience. It said that Jesus was the sole authority for the church, not culture, convention, and certainly not political leaders and ideologies. And it asked, in essence, for Germans to follow the Jesus Way in their time and place. The authors of the declaration knew exactly what they were asking and at what cost. Yet as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others would later say, what was gained far outweighed what was lost. “Freedom,” he said.[8] That was the Jesus Way.

It was an epiphany of sorts. Which is why I brought it forward today. Because an epiphany is the raising of something to consciousness, in our case the question of what kinds of Christians we are to be and whose side we are on. Yet the story is as old as our faith itself. On Epiphany Sunday we remember that when Jesus was born, when his way was just begun, the ruler of the age sought to destroy him. He hadn’t uttered a teaching, hadn’t told a single story, before Herod sensed the threat. Magi came from far away, Zoroastrians following the stars, and they gave him gifts to honor him. In so doing, they put themselves at risk and had to go home by another way. It’s a metaphor for our moment. And a question for our faith.

Whose side are we on this year? The king’s or the baby’s? Which statement will we make, Nashville’s or Boston’s? What faith will we claim, the quiet retreat into comfort or the bold public signing of our names? And who will hear what we say? Will the powers that be hear it and come for us? Will those on the margins hear it and feel loved and cherished? Will our own hearts hear it and feel proud and free as Bonhoeffer said?

Each of us must answer for ourselves. But there is an answer. And we don’t need to go all the way to a quiet courtyard in Berlin to make it. The cobbled streets of Charleston will do. Whose side are we on? they ask. Here and now.

Amen.

 

[1] See the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand English language website. Accessed online at http://www.gdw-berlin.de/en/home/.

[2] German Resistance Memorial Center Foundation, Resistance Out of Christian Faith, ed. Ute Stiepani, Julia Albert, and Johannes Tuchel, (Berlin: Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, 2015), 10.

[3] Holly Meyer, “Evangelical Leaders Issue Nashville Statement, a ‘Christian Manifesto’ on Human Sexuality,” The Tennesseean, August 29, 2017. Accessed online at: http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2017/08/29/evangelical-leaders-issue-nashville-statement-christian-manifesto-human-sexuality-lgbt-gay-marriage/611756001/.

[4] See the Nashville Statement. Accessed online at: https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement.

[5] See the Boston Declaration. Accessed online at: https://thebostondeclaration.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See the Barmen Declaration at the United Church of Christ website. Accessed online at: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_barmen-declaration.

[8] Resistance Out of Christian Faith, ed. Stiepani, Albert, and Tuchel, 10.

 

A Revolution of Values (Luke 1.46-55)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

December 17, 2017

 

In the Black Theology Unit at the American Academy of Religion, Michelle Alexander addressed a room that was filled to capacity. People sat in the aisle and leaned against the wall to hear her. Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow and Visiting Professor of Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has become one of the leading prophetic voices of our times. For years, she has told the truth with a passion and clarity like few others. The crowd leaned in when she spoke.

Alexander offered some prescient thoughts on the state of the country and the role of people of faith in the freedom struggle. She responded to panelists and took a few questions. But there was one thing she said rather off the cuff that got the room going. Responding to a question about church, she said, “But if church is anything, ought it not be rehearsal for revolution?”[1] The room erupted into a chorus of Amens and Mmm-hmms. Because every person there understood how revolutionary the Jesus story really was.

To be clear, the revolution to which Alexander referred was nonviolent. She did not mean a call to arms. Rather, it was a revolution of values that the church ought to be a rehearsal for. In church, we gather to stage the world the way we’d make it if we could. We would treat each other equally and arrange ourselves in egalitarian ways. We would welcome all without judgment or condition. We would share what we have, giving to each as they had need. We would forgive each other as we would hope to be forgiven for our many shortcomings. We would lay down our swords and our violent words and thoughts and commit ourselves to living peaceably together. We would put the children first and say that the kin-dom belongs to them. We would put ego in its proper place, at the margins, not the center of the story. The revolution would begin inside of us. That is where it would be born. Shouldn’t church, Alexander asked, be the place where that happens?

Michelle Alexander was not offering a Christmas mediation, but it began to sound like one. Because every Christmas we rehearse the most revolutionary story of all. That an impoverished, refugee family gave birth to a baby who would challenge an empire—well, who would challenge all our empires—with his egalitarian vision. He would grow up to break all the rules, offending religious leaders and disturbing political officials. His people would not be the powerful, but those who had no particular power. He saw them as his sisters and brothers, called them the very children of God, spent his time walking with them, talking at tables and wells, telling stories and saying that inasmuch as we have shown kindness to the least, then we have shown it to him; inasmuch as we have loved our neighbor, we have loved the very mystery we call God. Talk about a revolution of values.

We come to Christmas every year sometimes barely aware of what we are saying or doing. We dress our children as shepherds and sheep. The choir sings “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” We tear up at the candles and the memories, but do we pause to hear what is really being said and sung? Do we hear what Jesus’ mother herself said, sang to him before he was born? He heard the words. How about us?

. . .Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

     and my spirit rejoices in God my

             Savior,

for [God] has looked with favor on the

     lowliness of [this one] servant.”[2]

She recognized that her place in society did not determine her value. And she sang of it to her son:

“[God] has shown strength. . .

has scattered the proud in the

             thoughts of their hearts. . .

brought down the powerful from

     their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly. . .

has filled the hungry with good

     things,

and sent the rich away empty.[3]

Every year we read this as if it is a gentle song. We read it as if it might soothe our minds. As if it might go down smoothly in a country where child hunger is an epidemic, millions live without the basics, and a tax bill now stands to redistribute wealth to the very richest in our society. Indeed, America today reads like an inversion of Mary’s song. We lift up the powerful and push down the lowly. We put more food on the table of the well-to-do while taking it from those who haven’t had a meal in days. We send the rich away richer and tell the poor and the hungry and the homeless to pull themselves up. You may have read that just this week a United Nations report revealed that 41 million Americans meet the definition of living in extreme poverty.[4] We are now a nation of the people Mary was singing about.

God favors the vulnerable, she sang, but empires never do. Thank God, we sing, that our lord was not a lord at all, not a king of any kind, but a commoner. When he was born, he sang his mother’s song, too.

As will we if we choose to follow his way. Which is what Christmas is all about.

There is a reason we listen for Mary’s song during the darkest time of year. There is a reason we join our voices in singing it. And there is a reason so many of us come to church these days, filling the room to capacity. . .

We want a revolution of values.

This season let us make a place for that revolution in our hearts.

Amen.

 

[1] Author’s notes from “Michelle Alexander and Walter Fluker: The Mystical Prophetic in Black—A Special Look at Mass Incarceration and the Black Lives Matter Movement” at the American Academy of Religion, Boston, Massachusetts, November 18, 2017.

[2] Luke 1.46-48, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Luke 1. 51-53, NRSV.

[4] Ed Pilkington, “A Journey Through a Land of Extreme Poverty: Welcome to America,” The Guardian, December 15, 2017, accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/15/america-extreme-poverty-un-special-rapporteur