Monday, August 26, 2019

On Power and Control

'Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.'
--Luke 13: 10-17

Earlier this week a conflict erupted that shook many in this country to their core:  Spider-Man is leaving the Marvel Cinematic Universe!  I know, I know.  Everybody stay calm.  Here’s the short version of what happened:  Spider-Man’s movie likeness is owned by Sony, who allowed the character to appear in the recent blockbuster Marvel films, which are owned by Disney.  When the two corporations could not agree on how to split the profits from those films—or more to the point, when neither would give up their power and control—the deal was broken, and now fans are mourning the uncertainty of Spider-Man’s film future.  All because no one wanted to give up their power and control.  It’s a sad, sad day.  

Spider-Man's reaction to being pulled from the MCU

All kidding aside, it can be argued, as Harvard professor Hugh O’Doherty once said, that all conflict comes down to power and control. Everything from Facebook spats to full-on global confrontations have, at their core, someone with power exerting it over another.  As we’ve all seen, in Facebook rants and global confrontations, this never ends well. Human beings, at our core, don’t like feeling threatened, and those of us who hold some kind of power get especially defensive when it is called into question, and we look to our institutional systems, rules, and laws to justify our position and enforce our power, rather than give any of it up.

I must preface all of this by saying that systems, rules, and laws are not by their nature bad things.  We do need them, and at their best they are meant to serve all the people, especially the powerless.  But what happens when they don’t and are instead used in harmful ways by those seeking to maintain their power and control? 

The ministry of Jesus is filled with moments when he confronts those in positions of power and calls them to metanoia, the Greek word we translate as ‘repentance,’ but whose literal definition is ‘a turning around in the right direction.’  Today we find Jesus caught up in one such moment when he heals a woman on the Sabbath, that is on Saturday, only to have a leader of the synagogue erupt in anger.  But you may have noticed that his anger is not directed at Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, which, by Law, is not allowed, no, the leader instead chastises the woman and all those coming for healing because they should have known the Law better.  You see, Jesus’ move makes the leader look bad and undermines his power, so he turns to Scripture to reinforce his position. It’s a power play, a posture perfectly reflective of someone who feels their power is being threatened, so they resort to a strict, literal interpretation of the rules and laws in order to save face.

An artist's depiction of Jesus healing the woman on the Sabbath

Jesus serves as a model for a different way.  Even among those who may not have believed him to be the promised Messiah, Jesus still held a position of authority as a rabbi. Yet not once do we see him attempt to desperately hold on to his position. Instead of exploiting his power like the synagogue leader, he shares it by speaking up for and helping those who cannot do so themselves.  Jesus calls the leader and his ilk hypocrites because they play the part of righteous people while trying to control others.  His rebuttal, then, implies that this is no mere academic difference of opinion about the interpretation of Torah but a moral issue about the real meaning being the Law, what is going on beneath the literal words.  The leader and those like him hide behind the literal words, neglecting their actual meaning.  Jesus points out earlier in chapter 6 of Luke’s gospel that such persons cannot perceive their own weakness, nor can they—as he said last week in chapter 12—discern the present evidence of God’s work in the world.  They are so tied to their systems, so bent on maintaining their power, that they are blind to the basic fundamental call of God to pay attention to and care for the needs of others.  

This is what happens when people are more concerned with maintaining their power and control than they are about actual folks in vulnerable positions.  For all the commandments that spoke about mercy and justice for the poor, sick, and lonely, this leader of the faith chooses to focus on one that will maintain his position of authority.  He can stand on Exodus, chapter 20 and Deuteronomy, chapter 5 as passages of Torah that support his argument.  So, in a manner of speaking, he isn’t wrong from a biblical scholarship standpoint because he can quote the Scriptures, but he is wrong from a theological standpoint because he refuses to see the mercy and justice of God at work in these people who have come to him for aid. While he’s not a Pharisee, he is still so concerned with following the rules that he forgets why they’re there in the first place, and he is so scared of what will happen if someone doesn’t follow the rules that he will disrespect even the dignity of these vulnerable people to maintain power and control. 

What makes Jesus such a radical figure for his time—and, quite frankly, for all time—is how he reinterprets power and the purpose of systems, rules, and laws.  In Mark, chapter 2, another occasion when he does something he isn’t supposed to do on the Sabbath, he points out that rules and laws are meant to serve people, not the other way around when he comments that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. What’s more, as Philippians, chapter 2 says, Jesus does not regard his equality with God—in other words, his power—as something to be exploited, but instead empties himself for the sake of others.  It is this emptying—the Greek word is kenosis—that Christianity invites everyone—and I mean EVERYONE—into, making it unlike any other religion that ever had been or has been since.  Christianity undoes the idea that the systems, rules, and laws come before the needs of people because Christ himself valued in his earthly ministry the experiences of ordinary, vulnerable, powerless people.  He empties himself of his own power and invites us—especially those of us in positions of authority, with power and control over the lives of others—to do the same.  This is the bold invitation of Christianity and the reason why everyone thought it would fail, because this faith was radical enough to invite every single kind of person in, and when they joined they let go of the power structures they knew out there, so that all voices, all experiences could be heard and respected. It was a complete reframing of what power looked like, and as a result the early church communities that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles or the letters of Paul were incredibly diverse, perhaps more so than any of our denominations today. Their mission was to serve one another, not maintain a strict adherence to religious laws. 

We have seen what becomes of Christian communities that flip those two and focus far too much on maintaining the literal meaning of rules and laws and promoting positions of power and control.  In these communities clergy abuse the trust and authority given to them by the people for whom they are supposed to care.  In these communities Scriptures about justice and mercy are ignored in favor of literal interpretations of those Scriptures that promote condemnation and hierarchical power structures. In these communities the experiences of young people, folks coming from other traditions, and those marginalized by both society and the institutional church are all swept aside in favor of upholding the status quo. These are communities of faith that are dying, and they will continue to do so as long as they resort to any and all measures for maintaining power and control while treating the journey of faith more like the synagogue leader does and less like Jesus does. 

Our friends in the United Church of Christ use a red comma as the symbol of their denomination, just as we use our Episcopal shield.  They use a comma because, they say, God is still speaking, still moving. The synagogue leader could not see that. God was moving, even on the sabbath because God is bigger than the Law or any institutional system.  God is still speaking, still moving, still calling us to metanoia, to a turning in the right direction, so that we may live into kenosis, that we may empty ourselves and show the world that real power doesn’t look like the power-over version of the faith leader but the power-with version of Jesus. This is the kind of power that brings real Good News to those who so desperately need it.  This, my brothers and sisters, is what made Christians different then and still makes them different now.  Ours is not a strict religion based on maintaining power and control through rules and laws but rather a way of being grounded in the way of Jesus’ own life, which is meant to permeate all walks of our lives. I wonder what our lives would look like, what our churches would look like, what our business and governments would look like, if we valued the mission to serve the powerless over the maintaining of systems that benefit the powerful.  If we could live in such a way, perhaps we can stand in the hopeful reality that God will, in the words of the Collect from Sunday, grant us, through the unity of the Spirit, to show forth God’s power of justice, mercy, and love among all people.  

Monday, August 19, 2019

They're Cheering For You

'Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.'
--Hebrews 12: 1-2

I can still hear her somewhere in the stands behind me.  The pitch would come in, and I would swing, and if I was lucky I would make contact.  Immediately, I would hear my mother, “Run, son, run!”  Like what else was I gonna do?!  But she was so excited.  Eventually, I became a pitcher and gave up hitting because I was not very good at it, but Mama didn’t stop, instead hollering, “Pitch that ball, Son!”  She was always so encouraging, and even when I didn’t get into a game she would throw that support to my teammates, so much so that “Run, Son!” and “Pitch that ball!” became cheers that my friends offered each other long after I had graduated and moved away.

With my mother after a college game in 2005.

I suspect some of you, like me, are former athletes.  Some of you may have been performers, musicians, actors, or teachers.  Some of you may have been in positions where you have needed to stand up in front of others publicly and be “on,” like the plethora of lawyers that we have in our church here in Asheboro, North Carolina.  As I am sure all of you would agree, performing in those arenas can be downright scary, but it’s a whole lot easier when you’ve got someone encouraging you.  

Nobody knows who the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews was—some say Paul, others say Clement, and even some say Priscilla and Aquila.  Yet whoever the author was, he or she must have been either an athlete themselves, or at the very least understood the pressures of public performance.  “Let us run with perseverance, the race that is set before us,” the writer says.  The journey of faith that the writer’s audience was on, the same journey that we are on, could be compared to a race, one that is long and perilous, one in which those running might not think they can go on, as though they will never see the finish line.  It is this race, the writer quips, that we are to run with perseverance.  

Here we have another case of the ancient Greek being translated in different ways at different times.  Both the New Revised Standard Version (the translation above) and the New International Version (everyone's favorite study bible) translates the Greek word hupomonee as 'perseverance.'  The English Standard Version—used in a lot of Baptist traditions—says we are to run with 'endurance.'  And the King James Version—NOT the one that Jesus used, contrary to popular opinion—poetically says that we are to run with 'patience.'  The original Greek is translated literally as “ a patient and persevering endurance of evils while remaining or waiting.” It is with this quality that believers are to run the race of faith, and thanks be to God that it is not about beating anyone to the finish line because the one who has already done that, the forerunner of that race, the pace-setter, and the one who goes ahead of all of us is Jesus Christ.

But I suspect I’m not alone is admitting that remembering that fact is a lot easier said than done.  So many hurdles are set up along this race.  There are twists and turns, and sometimes even sudden, deadly drops.  If any of us started this race thinking it would be easy, well, Jesus makes it clear that that is not the case.  He warns his followers morning that he has not come to bring peace but division (Luke 12: 49-56. which was the Gospel text from this past Sunday).  This is really tough for us to hear, but that is exactly what happened when Jesus offered liberation from so many of the socio-religious norms of his day. And since then we have seen what his coming has wrought.  Family members have been pitted against each other, nations have waged wars over what it really means to be followers of Jesus, and in our own day the blessed name of Jesus is used to shame others and to promote violence and hatred of all kinds.  

How then can we possibly run such a race of faith in a world filled with all that division, where so many insults and so much shame are hurled our way that we begin to internalize it and think that rejection, pain, and suffering, are what we deserve?  How can we even make that first step of faith, if everyone in the crowd is booing us to the point that we cannot even take our place at the starting line?  

Blessedly, the answer lies in the one who is the forerunner, in Jesus.  He, according to Hebrews, is the pioneer, the perfecter of our faith, the one who has himself already ran his own race, and oh boy, has he faced that shame, those insults and boos.  He himself has endured the shame of the cross, and as Hebrews puts it, he has 'disregarded that shame'.  In our own time we’ve become so accustomed to the sight of the cross that we have positive feelings about it whenever we look at it, but the severity of the stigma attached to death on a cross cannot be undervalued.  One who died on a cross, it was said, could never inherit eternal life on the Day of Resurrection.  There was no greater shame, and yet Jesus has defeated that stigma, that shame, so that we too may overcome our shame.  It’s worth noting that there is a big difference between shame and guilt.  Guilt tells us that we did something bad, while shame tells us that we ARE bad.  There is perhaps no greater weapon of division in this world than shame, especially when it is self-inflicted. Jesus, by taking on the greatest shame of his day, has liberated us from ours and has made it possible for us to join him in that race of faith.  

Yet the race is long and difficult, and we sometimes wonder, even if we get started, whether we can finish.  This is when we are reminded, as Hebrews puts it in one of the most poetic pieces of our Scriptures, that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  These are the ones cheering us on.  Hebrews names them in the sentences preceding the quoted text above as Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtha, David, and Samuel, those whom the listeners of this letter would have known so well as faithful men and women who had gone before, who endured their own shame, but whose examples and words of encouragement were still with them.  Yes, there are perils on the road, but that great cloud of witnesses is lining the road, cheering the faithful on to the promised day of God’s Kingdom.  Centuries later the Christian Church would mirror this image when the faithful would line up to create a path through which the newly baptized would walk, all the while cheering and celebrating the newest member of the Body of Christ, reminding them that they would never be alone from that day forward.

I experienced this reminder first hand last Thursday.  It was a full day of pastoral visits and celebrating the Eucharist at the local prison.  I had some highs and some lows throughout the day and was even wrestling with some of my own self-inflicted shame when I sat down with this text to figure out how I would preach on Sunday.  Just then, in the Panera Bread where I was sermonizing, Wildflowers by Tom Petty came on over the speaker.  It was one of my mother’s favorite songs.  I had planned to dance with her to that song at my wedding a year ago, but after her death I still chose to dance to it with my sister, whispering to her as we danced that "Mama is here."  I knew in that moment, sitting in that booth with my iced tea and all of my Bible commentaries, that my Mama was there last Thursday, encouraging me  just like she did when I played ball for all those years.  She was, and still is, cheering me on.  

All of you have those great witnesses who are cheering you on.  When you don’t think you can make it any further because of the taunts, the assaults and the ridicule of the folks up in the cheap seats, they’re there.  When you want to give up and give in to shame and fear, they’re there.  They’re calling your name, filling you with the power of the Holy Spirit to keep moving, even if it’s just putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, one day at a time.  To borrow language from writer Brene Brown, they are the ones who remind us of our worth, remind us that we are loved, and help make it possible for us to step into the arenas of our lives and be brave. Those witnesses, like Susan Mitchell and all those that I know you can name right now, some of whom are still here on this side of the Kingdom and some of whom have gone on to glory, they are lining the roads, and with them rooting for us, pushing us through, and giving us the encouragement we need, we will, with patience, endurance, and perseverance, finish our race.  And we will win!  Because we have them surrounding us, and we have Jesus, our pioneer and perfecter, leading the way to the ultimate victory of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God.  

An Eastern icon of the Great Cloud of Witnesses.