If the first disciples listened to punk rock music, then they might have sung to themselves the hit Green Day song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” I can just see them singing, sorrowful after the death of Jesus:
I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I'm the only one and I walk alone
Green Day’s song comes as part of a trilogy on their album “American Idiot.” Throughout the album, the main character is “Jesus of Suburbia.” Earlier the album booms with the energy of Jesus being in the City through the song “Holiday.” That song included the great chorus,
I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies
This is the dawning of the rest of our lives
And of course, that chorus speaks to the reason the first disciples followed Jesus. He spoke to them of a new dream, a dream of God’s hopes for humanity, a dream far different from the hollowed lies of the pious propagandists.
The disciples hoped Jesus’ dream would lead to a new dawning; they moved with the hope “this is the dawning of the rest of our lives.”
But that dawn turned to naught in the death of Jesus. Hopes impaled. Dreams drained. Life crucified.
In the aftermath of Jesus’ death, the disciples scattered. A few people may have rumored about Jesus still living; but Cleopas and many others took their broken dreams and wandered away. Green Day’s song speaks to what they felt; after the excitement of Maundy Thursday, revolution in the air, Jesus passing around the wine; then came the crushing hangover. Like a man hungover after a binge, Cleopas shuffled away from Jerusalem, singing with Green Day:
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
'Til then I walk alone...
Have you walked that boulevard? At night, wondering what happened? In the day, lost? Walking or driving without knowing where you were going? Cleopas walked that way, pushed along by disappointment, harried by loss, longing for just a few more minutes of his old life before it all fell apart.
One commentator referred to the disciples as experiencing “anesthetizing shock.” I like his phrase. “Anesthetizing shock.” Stress leaves us in that stunned condition. It can happen at the death of a loved one; we go through the motions of existence, caught between a reality we cannot bear and hope we know not real; that disbelieving state when the scent of our loved one lingers in the air and we swear they could come back in the door at any moment.
As Cleopas and his friend walked along, alone in their anesthetizing shock, a stranger joined them. He asked them about their sadness. Dumbfounded (and a little bit insulted), Cleopas asked, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know?” And though Cleopas walked with broken dreams, in that moment he entered a new kind of dreamscape. For the story, as Luke told it, sounds like the recounting of a dream.
Cleopas, his friend, and the stranger walked along as the disciples shared their disappointments. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped; it lingered in the air like mist, the fog of a soap-opera dream sequence. But the stranger began to explain to Cleopas and his friend a new interpretation of what happened and how it connected to all the prophecies from ancient times. Like a dream, Cleopas remembered talking with the stranger but couldn’t repeat what he was told.
Cleopas and his friend invited the stranger to lodge with them for the night. But then, as happens in dreams, roles and expectations suddenly reversed. Cleopas the host became Cleopas the guest. The stranger offered hospitality began to serve them. The stranger took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.
Reality hit: this is Jesus. But jolted out of their dream, they awoke: alone. The Jesus of their dream disappeared. As the shock wore off they asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
It intrigues me that this question comes as the first time in the story that Cleopas and his friend speak to each other. Until this point, they existed in a shocked silence, a parallel paralysis, speaking to the stranger but not talking to each other, moving through life, alone together; but now, awoke.
Can we really count this dream-like encounter as a resurrection experience? Can we believe it? It seems so much like what we hope for when we lose a loved one - one more meal together, one more conversation where we hear the words we most long to hear. And yet we see the effect of the resurrection in the lives of the disciples: they move from shocked isolation to heart-warmed community; not just the two of them, but they go back to Jerusalem, back to their friends, ready to say, “This is the dawning of the rest of our lives.” The dream lived on.
And so in Luke’s Gospel, the great proof of the resurrection isn’t in touching Jesus but in this movement of the disciples from isolation to community.
Often we want proof before we believe something. When we doubt someone, we say to them, “prove it.” These days of course we’re debating all sorts of facts; and now we even have to have marches in support of science. Because even when we can prove things, some people don’t believe it. But as much as we long for proof, Luke gives us something else. A dream. Strangely warmed hearts. A messiah mirage.
Many people of faith seem so strident in their truth claims; thunderously claiming to have the absolute truth. But I like how Luke tells the story. He spoke of the resurrection as one would a dream - a dazed account of an elusive Jesus, the truth always just out of grasp, enlightening but fleeting. (After the news this week from the Navy, we could even say that Jesus is harder to keep track of then an aircraft carrier. He went north to Galilee. No, he went south to Emmaus).
I treasure this elusive Jesus, the now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t messiah, who comes to the disciples as in a dream and awakens them to their community of friends. I know what Cleopas felt. My most profound spiritual experiences came like dreams - that unexpected insight, the numinous moment, a mystical feeling of blessing; all real but fleeting.
And so, I appreciate the confusion of Cleopas, who having encountered Jesus seemed to still be rubbing the doubt from his eyes as he said, “Were not our hearts burning?” He can’t quite believe it.
Many of us have found ourselves in similar places. Experiencing the sacred; but not sure if we believe how the sacred gets translated into dogmas and traditions. Maybe we could start calling ourselves Emmaus Christians. And more importantly: perhaps we could stop thinking of faith as a matter of knowledge and instead open our hearts to faith as a matter of dreams. How does Jesus speak in dreams to you? How do you dream resurrection?
But I’m also interested in that moment when Cleopas’ dream and Cleopas’ reality collided in communion. That was the ‘aha’ moment when he realized Jesus lived.
Was it just the act of taking bread and breaking it - that everyday motion - that made the stranger seem like Jesus returned? I’ve known those moments when some everyday thing can remind me of someone I’ve lost. Every June I plant red geraniums in front of my house. I don’t particularly love red geraniums. But when I see them lining the front of my house, it reminds me of my grandmother; I loved her and she loved red geraniums. So I plant them every year for that moment when seeing them transports me back to the child I once was walking up her front steps.
Was communion like that for Cleopas? The breaking of bread reminding him of all the meals he ate with Jesus - that time with the 5000, that time with the tax-collector, that last time… Did the memory of all those meals come back to him?
Or did Cleopas realize - as bread and cup passed from hand to hand - that he was not alone? Not alone, because Jesus was with him. Not alone, because his friend was there. Not alone, because a community of friends awaited him.
Tugged by memory and awareness (the past and the presence), Cleopas knew in a way he could not prove, “my redeemer lives.”
What happens for you when we break bread and share cup? I know one thing that happens in my house. I get asked, “gluten-free bread again?” And I know my family aren’t the only ones who dip the bread into the cup and think, “This what Jesus tastes like?”
But we use gluten-free bread because not everyone can eat gluten. Just like we use grape juice because not everyone does well with wine. And so the gluten-free bread and the Welsh's make it so everyone can be included. We celebrate communion as inclusively as we can; because it’s not a moment to isolate people but a time to bring us all into community. And when I realize that then I think, “This is Jesus.”
What we experience in communion - the taste of inclusion - speaks to the whole purpose of church.
Recently I learned a bit of the story behind the word “parish.” I grew up Catholic; and that’s what we called our congregation, a parish. The word comes from a Greek word, paroikia. It's an odd word because it really means two very different ideas in English. On the one hand, it can mean neighbor; literally, those who dwell near by. But at the same time, it can mean sojourning or dwelling in a strange land, literally a refugee; and in some cases, the word is used as a euphemism for slavery. So this one word, paroikia, close to parochial, means both neighbor and stranger. It’s odd; and yet what a great reminder of what a church, a parish, a congregation ought to be: a community inclusive enough to bring in neighbor and stranger.
Cleopas became a disciple of Jesus early on. He believed in the Jesus dream. But then came death. And Cleopas stumbled about as a man of broken dreams. Til that amazing day on the way to Emmaus when he dreamed Jesus again. And found him in community.
How many Cleopas-like people stumble around us? How many sing to themselves:
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
'Til then I walk alone...
Friends, I pray “We shall be like those who dreamed.” Dreamed like Cleopas, dreamed of Jesus bringing the lonely into community, bringing people to a table that included them all, so that in the broken bread and shared cup they could know, “I no longer walk alone.”
Alleluia and Amen.
I particularly drew on Dreams and Reality by R. Goetz for this sermon.
Earlier this week, a full flight prepared to depart from Chicago to Louisville. But United Airlines realized it had a problem: four of its own employees needed seats in order to get to their jobs. First the airline tried to get volunteers; then, when that didn’t work, the airline chose to remove four passengers. The airline didn’t take anyone from First Class nor from its other premier seats. It forced people out of their seats from the back of the plane.
An Asian-American man named Dr. David Dao refused to give up his seat. United called in the police. And from there the situation got bizarre, with phrasing only George Orwell could write. Police observed Dr. Dao introduce his head to the armrest of another seat. They then escorted his unconscious body off the plane. Which allowed United to re-accommodate Dr. Dao.
Re-accommodate must go down as the Orwellian word of the year. It sounds nice: to accommodate someone means to care for them and provide hospitality. To re-accommodate sounds even better. But the word hides an ugly fact. Think how we could use this word: a landlord didn’t evict a family, he merely re-accommodated them. An undocumented woman wasn’t sent to a detention center; just re-accommodated. Rosa Parks wasn’t told to give up her seat; simply offered re-accommodation.
In truth, no pleasant words could distract from the bloodied face of Dr. Dao; or the horror of the other passengers screaming, “My God, My God, what are you doing?” One could clearly see the suffering on David Dao’s face.
But this wasn’t the only suffering this week. News came of 46 Egyptian Christians murdered while at church on Palm Sunday. And much closer to home, of a Muslim woman in Milwaukee beaten for wearing a headscarf.
What are we to make of these awful, horrifying events? And especially, how does the resurrection of Jesus cause us to see them differently? How do we see suffering and pain in the light of Easter morning?
One of the most succinct expressions of our Easter faith came from Martin Luther King, who wrote, “The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God's triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.”
King’s creed held Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost closely together. Good Friday: on the cross Jesus died for his hope. On Easter: the empty tomb promised Jesus’ hopes vindicated. On Pentecost: the Holy Spirit bound together all those who hope into a new community. Through this statement of faith, King placed at the center of his spirituality three experiences: suffering, redemption, and community.
This morning I want us to consider how these same three experiences interact in our spirituality too: how do suffering, redemption, and community intersect?
Many people speak as if the most challenging question of faith is “Does God exist?” But I find my own heart stumbles over the cross and its question, “What does suffering mean?” To see the brutality people can inflict on each other, whatever the reason, challenges my faith. And to claim suffering as redemptive seems a foolishness.
But as I struggle with the question - what meaning is there in suffering? - I’ve come to value how other people answer this question for themselves. One person who thought deeply about the meaning of his own suffering was Martin Luther King; in his own life, he experienced both Good Friday and Easter, suffering and redemption; and each of them bound up with Pentecostal community.
King’s thoughts on suffering changed through his work on civil rights. At first, King spoke optimistically of the power of suffering to transform people. During the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which launched him onto the national stage in the struggle for Civil Rights, King saw the experience of suffering leading to transformed hearts.
The Montgomery boycott lasted far longer than King expected. In the tenth month of that effort, feeling weary himself, King told an elderly black woman, “Start back riding the bus, cause you are too old to keep walking.” But Mother Pollard, as she was known, told King, “I’m gonna walk till it’s over.” King protested, “But aren’t your feet tired?” “Yes, my feet is tired, but my soul is rested.” King knew what she meant: though the boycott required much suffering, those who suffered discovered a soul-force, a spiritual power, a resurrection hope that lifted them. By Easter’s logic, oppression could not keep the truth down forever; God worked for liberation, draining death and hatred and bigotry of its power.
King often spoke about this power born of suffering. Throughout his work, King faced violence: beatings, bombings of his home, a nearly successful stabbing, denunciations by enemies and condemnations from allies. He said, “My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the sufferings into a creative force.” One of the most remarkable elements of Jesus’ personality was a similar lack of bitterness; he could get angry but never seemed bitter. King chose Easter, chose the resurrection response to suffering, the path of transformation instead of bitterness.
King believed the creative force would transform him and heal those who caused him to suffer. So he proclaimed, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.” But events sorely tested King’s faith in the redeeming power of suffering; none more so than the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
The bombing killed four girls, wounded more, and shocked everyone. King gave the eulogy sermon for the girls and while he still found meaning in suffering, it had changed. He preached, “They did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. … The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood.” The bombing changed how King thought of suffering: before he spoke with confidence, now he spoke conditionally, questioningly. Suffering might redeem. These deaths might change the south. Good Friday loomed. Easter became a question.
Audre Lorde, an African-American lesbian poet, would later sharpen this question. She made a distinction between suffering and pain. “Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named, and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action. Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.” I find Lorde’s distinction sharpens King’s tentative “may well.” Pain may well redeem if it moves us to strength, to knowledge, or to action.
Lorde’s insight unlocked the question of the meaning of suffering for me. In fact, causes me to reframe it as the meaning of pain. For I think she’s right: suffering comes as a constant reliving of the same unprocessed pain. It’s Charlie Brown, running up to the football thinking this time Lucy won’t snatch it away. It’s each of us, when we keep remaining stuck in the same broken patterns, behaviors, and relationships which drain away our true selves. Suffering locks us into a continual pattern of re-accommodating ourselves, re-accommodating indignity. And to this she contrasted pain: pain can teach, enlighten, clarify. Pain can be that Easter moment when new life begins, when we resurrect our dignity, resurrect our true self, resurrect what was once broken.
I don’t know how Dr. David Dao makes sense of what happened to him, but I see something important happening among Asian-Americans in the wake of this incident. As writer Jessica Prois wrote, speaking for herself as an Asian-American, “David Dao being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight was plainly reprehensible. But... it probably wasn’t an example of ‘flying while Asian.’” Yet it sparked in her and in many other Asian-Americans a deep awareness of the racism and discrimination so often endured silently. It seems like a resurrection moment when people come away from a painful incident having claimed their voice.
The pain King experienced in the Civil Rights movement certainly brought clarity to him. King continued to speak of redemption, but in important ways his own pain transformed the injustice he saw. In an essay published after his assassination, King said, “Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage [African-Americans] were suppressing and the vast amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.” Facing the depths of pain didn’t turn King bitter; but it did broaden his concerns to include international issues like the Vietnam War and focused him on the plight of the poorest Americans. The reality of his own pain opened his heart even more profoundly to the suffering of others.
The violence King endured sought to isolate him. Hatred screams at its victim, “You are alone. No one cares.” We saw it on Good Friday, as even Jesus’ closest friends abandoned him. We suffer alone. But God brings resurrection; that new life comes in the profound “no” of Easter to the abandonment of Good Friday. The women came to Jesus on Easter; and in that visit one sees the Holy Spirit knitting together a new community. Where violence sought to isolate, the Spirit brings Pentecostal community. Solidarity is a resurrection act.
Last year a shooter killed over forty people at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Almost immediately, vigils happened around the country. Many of us attended one at City Hall here in Milwaukee. To stand with friends and strangers, united in our opposition to violence, felt healing; a gift of the spirit knitting together broken hearts.
This week a man beat a Muslim woman in the early morning hours as she returned home from prayer. The spirit moves among us to say “no” to this violence; and to make clear, “You are not alone.” A Plymouth member contacted me immediately on hearing about this violence; and through her suggestion we have cards to sign and send in our reception hall. I hope you will send them; and that we all stay open for opportunities to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors. For this is the Pentecostal response to pain; the joining of our spirits with the Spirit of God to knit back together hearts broken by pain.
The community building work of King deepened in him his commitment to the transforming power of Easter. In his last, and most radical, speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Network King closed by saying, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right, ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’”
When the first disciples came to the tomb, they didn’t realize at first that “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” As Matthew told it, on Easter morning the disciples kept glimpsing but missing the resurrected Jesus. The women hear of the resurrection but then, “He has gone ahead of you to Galilee.” They glimpse him but get the message to tell others, “He has gone ahead of us to Galilee.” This elusive Jesus appeals to me; this Christ always one step ahead of us, going on ahead.
And it speaks to me of the difference between the re-accommodation of suffering and the resurrection after pain. The Romans tried to ground Jesus down into the earth. To define him by suffering, to defeat him with brutality, to make the meaning of his life the awfulness he felt, and finally to confine him by their oppression. But Jesus rose. Suffering, pain, even death would not be the final word on his life. He rose, beyond the confines of hate and the snares of brutality. He rose over all the forces that tried to block beloved community. He rose, saying, “I go before you but you shall rise too. Come, follow me. We rise.” Alleluia and Amen.
"What Did You Expect? Reflections on White Jesus" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 9, 2017
I always wondered how to capture the meaning and energy of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. How does one tap into the excitement of a protest? Make sense of purpose? Capitalize on the uplift?
Well I certainly learned how not to do it. This week Pepsi launched an ad featuring Kendall Jenner. It opened with a young, vibrant, multicultural throng of protesters marching down the street carrying signs - Unity, Love, Join the Conversation. Jenner, in the midst of a photo shoot, stopped what she was doing and jumped into the protest. A few nods, winks, and fist bumps later, and Jenner led the march up to a line of police officers. Mimicking a classic image from a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Jenner stood in front of the officer. The tension broke when Jenner offered a Pepsi to the cop; the crowd cheered; carbonated hosannas.
People were quick to comment. A once arrested justice advocate mused, “If someone had just brought some soda.” In the real-life protest Jenner mimicked, a woman named Ieshia Evans walked up to three police officers dressed in so much body armor that they looked like Robocops. Unlike Jenner, the cops arrested Evans. And unlike Jenner, her protest had a message: Black Lives Matter.
Watching Jenner jump into leading the crowd reminded me of that old joke about the French radical who said, “There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” In Pepsi’s ad, we don’t know where the people are going, but we know Pepsi and Jenner will lead them there. Ice cold soda saving us all.
Pepsi quickly pulled the ad, apologizing to its customers and to Jenner for the worst cola marketing decision since New Coke. But the ad left me with a lingering aftertaste. I thought: Pepsi replaced the black and brave Iesha Evans with the white and opportunistic Kendall Jenner. Tone deaf marketing, certainly. But what did you expect? In a country deeply affected by racism, Pepsi’s not the only one to retell black stories with white faces; not the only one to switch calls for justice with sugary sweet platitudes.
On the surface, Jesus’ parade and Pepsi’s might have looked similar. The disciples might have carried signs like those in the ad: Love, Unity. And Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was its own media event. Not broadcast, of course; but certainly described, discussed, and debated. Yet while Pepsi chose to parody the oppressed, Jesus mocked the powerful.
Jesus mimicked the marches of kings and their celebrated entrances into cities. His entrance evoked long traditions of grand royal entrances. And more immediately, he echoed the way the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate ceremoniously entered the city. In all of this, Jesus played off of expectations for the display of power.
People in the time of Jesus deeply longed for a messianic leader. Jesus was one of nearly two dozen messiah figures in the century in which he lived. Expectations were clear: a messiah would come to defeat the Romans and restore an independent Jewish state.
Initially it seemed Jesus would fulfill the expectations of the crowd. The description of his entrance reverberated with scriptural allusions, especially the prophecy of Zechariah, whom the Gospel of Matthew quotes. Scriptural texts like Zechariah shaped the messianic expectations in the time of Jesus.
Which makes it all the more curious that Matthew seemed to deliberately misuse the saying of Zechariah. First, Matthew dropped a key line of Zechariah. Zechariah had said, “your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he.” Matthew dropped all reference to Jesus being triumphant and victorious. This was a key part of the definition of a messiah: people would recognize the messiah because he would successfully defeat the Romans. Of course, instead of becoming a victor, Jesus died a victim. And so, Matthew is already teasing with the expectations of the crowd, promising a messiah but foreshadowing his defeat.
And, Matthew treats Zechariah’s prophecy humorously. Zechariah had said, “[he will arrive] humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah, like much of the Old Testament, used double statements to underscore a point, saying something twice to give emphasis. But Matthew, who clearly understood at a deep level the writing style of the Old Testament, takes this emphatic statement and turns it around. Jesus arrived riding both a donkey and foal, one rider on two steeds. It’s a playful image meant to open our minds to how Jesus will confound all the expectations of the crowd.
This sense of parody will continue throughout Holy Week and into Easter; most especially in the painfully mocking sign “king of the Jews” over his cross and then more slapstick in the disciples and soldiers running around the empty tomb saying to one another, “Where did he go? Where did he go?”
Jesus, in his dramatic entrance, pressed on the expectations of the crowd and all of the cultural baggage he inherited in order to redefine the meaning of messiah. On that day, and even now, Jesus challenges our assumptions and our expectations. Jesus asks, “What did you expect?”
And so, because Jesus disrupts expectations, it becomes important to look at the implicit expectations of our hearts. Last month our congregation hosted a talk in Shorewood on “How Children Learn about Race and How Adults Can Help.” Dr. Erin Winkler upended many expectations about children and race. At the outset, she asked, “When do you think children first begin to identify race?” While many offered guesses, the research shows babies as young as 3 months old can recognize race.
And almost as soon as children learn to recognize race, they begin to attribute meaning to what they see. Most adults don’t talk to children about race so children construct their meaning out of what goes unsaid but what they perceive. I was particularly struck by how this plays out in children’s developing notions of race. Dr. Winkler wasn’t saying that children are racists but that children show what’s called ‘implicit racial bias.’ For instance, researchers asked white children aged 5 to 10 to allocate resources between white and black children. The younger children were clear: I’m picking people who look like me. They gave their resources to other white children. The older children in the study - 8 to 10 year olds - still made the same choice; they gave their resources to the other white children. But they rationalized their choices in a race-neutral way: he looks fun, she has a smile, he plays sports, she looks athletic. This social research shows children will work out of a racially biased framework but learn to make those biases covert.
But, as Dr. Winkler made clear, we can interrupt the formation of implicit racial bias. We need to ask, “What do our kids see?” As Erin explained, “[young] children may notice when going to the store or the doctor’s office or riding the bus that height and hairstyle do not seem related to occupation or neighborhood, but that skin color does.” Therefore, we need to think about the diversity our children see and experience and engage; something especially true in a community as segregated as Milwaukee.
What children see gets compounded by what they hear from adults. If no one talks about segregation as bad or racism as a problem or diversity as good then young children just think what is is what ought to be.
So interrupting the formation of implicit bias - and by extension raising anti-racist children - means paying attention to what children see and hear.
Dr. Winkler pressed the audience in Shorewood about these issues: who’s at our dinner table, how are people shown in the media we watch, what do we talk about, how are we engaging children and youth in the rich and varied cultural diversity around us?
Our task becomes harder when our language itself subtly reinforces racial hierarchies. Just think; we call people of color ‘minorities.’ Did you ever wonder, “minor to whom?” Minor is but a synonym to inferior. To call someone minor league is not a compliment. Minorities: our very language perpetuates what we want to move beyond.
Or consider the portrayal of people of color in books and TV, especially children’s shows like “Lab Rats,” in which a white scientist makes three white children with superpowers and then marries a black woman with a son of her own. The show follows the four youth: three supercharged white teens and their black sidekick; superior whites, average black, just one more in a long American tradition of entertaining ourselves with racialized hierarchies. We wonder where racial bias comes from; but given the stories we tell, what did we expect?
Erin Winkler’s talk both surprised me with how early children form implicit bias and made me think more urgently about our own conversations about race. And even more specifically about Jesus. To be blunt: why is Jesus almost always white? And what does it do to our racial imagination to always have a white savior?
Of course the historical Jesus wasn’t white. I put on the back of your bulletin a best-guess as to what Jesus might have looked like based on the work of forensic anthropologists. But this is not our dominant image of fairest Lord Jesus as even a brief glance from your bulletins to our windows would prove. In the church we’ve done much the same as Pepsi. Pepsi took the courageous story of a black woman facing off against the police and turned it into a tamer tale with a white Kendall Jenner. And in American Christianity we turned the savior white.
This week I ran an unscientific internet study: I googled Jesus and then counted the racial profile of the images. I had to look through 126 images before I found a clearly African Jesus. The first 26 images I found were all brilliantly white. Number 27 surprised me: an image of Trump as Jesus. The middle eastern Jesus on the bulletin was 48th; Jesus with a cheesehead 57. And even more oddly: Justin Bieber showed up as my 64th image. But all of these Jesus’ came before a black Jesus.
In a society warped by racism, the ubiquitous image of white Jesus reinforces racialized hierarchies and supports white supremacy. If a child is trying to figure out why whites have it best and the child only sees a white Jesus, then the child will reason that God wants it that way. Or, as Traci Blackmon, a national leader in our movement said, “White Jesus is a reminder of the dominant culture's insatiable need for supremacy and the toxic roots of racism woven into the fabric of American Christianity.”
Beyond how it affects children: what does it do to our spirituality to conceive of Jesus as white? If we only see our savior as white, then how much harder do we make it see Jesus in others? And what does it mean to tell people to “be like Jesus” when we only portray Jesus as white? Is it just another not-so-subtle message: act white?
Decades ago Stokely Carmichael asked, “How can white society move to see black people as human beings?” The question still remains, in so many ways, woefully unanswered. But what did we expect? White Jesus to bring us racial paradise?
The Board of Christian Education began to talk about this after Dr. Winkler’s address and as a result of the white privilege work of our community. The Board committed to making sure every classroom has diverse images of Jesus and other biblical characters. We’re in the process of hanging new artwork.
But I’d also challenge each of you to find your own images of a non-white Jesus. Not because Jesus can’t be white but because we’ve already had so much of white Jesus. What images appeal to you? We don’t typically pray with icons, but I’d encourage you to print out the images you find and to use them in prayer. Or, when you close your eyes, picture yourself praying to a black Jesus or an Asian Jesus or a Latino Jesus. What would it be like to allow many more images of Jesus to permeate your soul? What would change inside of you as you change your image of Jesus?
Jesus came as a messiah who defied all expectations. And yet, too often in America we confine him to the tight boundaries of our racialized expectations, creating a white Jesus who reinforces that racial status quo of our country. But just as Jesus broke expectations on the first Palm Sunday, he calls us to break our racialized expectations today. Amen.
I trust you made the connection between our scripture reading and the decoration of the communion table. Not as dramatic as what Jesus did in the Temple, but still a jarring image of our status quo turned upside down. And, if we wanted to summarize Jesus in the Temple then that might be it: turning the status quo upside down.
This is one of the familiar stories of our Christian imagination. We can’t have a bake sale in the church without at least one person reminding me of the “money changers in the temple.” And yet: we hardly ever read it. The story never appears on the lectionary for a Sunday. And even less: we hardly ever press from reading to see how this story might upset our own tables.
So this morning I want us to read this very closely. And then I want us to look inside at how Jesus might turn upside down our own status quo.
This story comes in between Palm Sunday - when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the loud acclaim of the crowd - and Good Friday - when he was arrested, tried, and killed. I’ve often wondered about those two events. At first, the crowd proclaimed him as Messiah. And then, days later, the crowd denounced him as a pretender, mocked him as a false king, and abandoned him to death. What happened? Some people postulate two crowds in Jerusalem, as if the city were as divided politically as we often are in America. But I’ve come to wonder if this event - the cleansing of the Temple - actually turned the adoring crowd against Jesus. Certainly this story became the ‘criminal charge,’ the reason for the authorities to arrest Jesus and accuse him of sedition. And so this story matters as a turning point in the Gospel, the moment that moved Jesus from teacher to traitor, from rabble-rouser to rebel-maker, from outlandish to outlaw.
It began dramatically, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”
We’d be mistaken if we imagine the Temple as a large version of our church or even like a modern Cathedral. The Temple was large and physically imposing in Jerusalem. But unlike a modern church, it was full of activity, not all of it religious and certainly not serene or quiet. As the largest open air square in the city, the forecourt of the Temple served as the grocery store and general market of the city. Herod the Great even built covered arcades around the square to support this function of the Temple and Temple administrators sold licenses to vendors. All of this commerce, plus the need to buy sacrificial animals and pay the Temple tax, required money-changers. Money-changers existed at every religious site as the picture in your bulletin shows. Our word “bank” and “bankers” derives from the money-changers sitting outside temples; in fact, the words for bank and banquet are both derived from the word for table. Religious shrines served as the first banks; tremendous wealth was stored in temples, including the Temple at Jerusalem; not just the money given to the priests but also money deposited for safe keeping under the watchful eye of a deity. So the Temple in Jerusalem was a cross between a grand cathedral, a Metro Market, and a BMO Branch - one stop shopping for goats, gold, and God.
A grave relief sculpture of a money-changer working in a Roman temple from the same era as Jesus.
Jesus strode into this spiritual-financial-commercial district. Matthew spoke of him knocking over tables. Doves flew free. Money bounced on the ground. A scramble, a scrum; merchants chased their money, shoppers picked up items discounted by disorder. Why this red-faced Jesus? Why this anger? What made him so mad?
Josephus, a historian writing about the same time as Jesus, fills in details we don’t have in the Gospels. The Temple authorities had increased the per-person tax. Originally, devout Jews made a once-in-a-lifetime offering of a shekel, a small coin. But the priests changed this to an annual tax; the same amount. A shekel donation once a lifetime or once a year didn’t matter much to most people; but to the very poor it represented a burden. Tax-collectors would go from the Temple to shake down people for their shekels; Josephus even makes a pun of the tax-collectors come out to the threshing floor to thresh the poor, separating the shekels from the chaff.
To add to the problem of the poor, the Temple only accepted Tyrian silver or gold coins. So the poor had to exchange their meager money for the right coinage. Money-changers, from the Temple then to the airport today, charged exorbitantly for the exchange.
I think Jesus got mad because of what happened to the poor at the Temple. The detail about the doves underscores this concern for the poor. All sorts of animals were sacrificed at the Temple. The emperor sent cows to be ritually slaughtered; the wealthy sent them too. The middling sort sent lambs and goats. But the poor made due with doves; pigeons really. Doves were the offering of the poor. Jesus’ anger focused on the money-changers and the dove-sellers; that is, Jesus focused his anger on the very people disadvantaging the poor.
He got mad because of the hucksters preying on the poor. But this isn’t the normal interpretation of the story. Normally we treat it as if Jesus is angry as the mixture of commercial activity with spiritual activity, as if Jesus wanted spirituality to have some sacred retreat from everyday life. Read that way, then the church ought to be focused on ‘high’ concerns, purely ‘spiritual’ matters.
Jesus didn’t live that way. Last week we heard a story of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. Work on the Sabbath broke one of the spiritual laws. But it didn’t bother Jesus. And Jesus didn’t change his mind when he came to the Temple. He kept focused on earthly concerns; most especially, the treatment of the poor and vulnerable.
And yet this idea of a separation of church and society, of spirituality and everyday concerns, of faith and public policy, runs strong in our culture. Why? At its root, the word “holy” means “different” or “other.” To be holy means to be set-apart. So our desire to see spirituality, the holy, separated from worldly concerns and debates is intrinsic to the word itself.
But Jesus didn’t understand “holiness” this way. One of the very oldest titles for Jesus - Emmanuel - points to a different understanding of holiness. Emmanuel means “God with us.” How can God be with us and set-apart at the same time? Both Emmanuel and Holy? Both present and removed?
Another word we use a lot might help: religion. Many people don’t like the word religion or religious these days. It sounds stuffy. But the word itself, at its root, means to “re-bind” or “to tie together again.” When Jesus saw the hucksters in the Temple preying on the poor, he felt the fraying of society. To see the widow turned away because she couldn’t pay the tax; to see the barely-making-it shepherd buy an overpriced dove for his offering, to see the poor taken advantage of: it infuriated him. Jesus bound himself to the poor. It was a religious moment; he tied himself to the vulnerable.
What would our faith look like if we saw defending the poor as the most faithful thing we could do? Even at Plymouth, where we engage a lot of justice work, I think we see this as the spiritual equivalent of extra credit. But what if we took the care and advocacy of the vulnerable as central to our spirituality?
It might make us redefine the word “holy.” I said a moment ago that the root word of holy can mean “different,” “other,” and “set-apart.” Often this means equating holiness with moments separate from the everyday word, separate from the mundane world. But what if we saw “holiness” as “otherness.” If we saw people treated as “other” in our society as holy; and therefore, found holiness in solidarity with anyone treated as different, other, and segregated out in our society? It would make overcoming segregation a holy pursuit.
At the Temple, when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers, he was doing that holy work, solidarity with the vulnerable, making a “preferential option for the poor.” And as he did so, he thundered out, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
Overturning the tables of the money-changers attacked the class system of his day. But in his thunderous shout he contradicted the nationalists of his day. Extensive Old Testament traditions speak of the Temple in Jerusalem being a place for all the nations. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple, he prayed that God would not just hear the prayers of his people but all people, the foreigner and the stranger in the land. Isaiah related a vision he had of God; in the vision God spoke and said, “And the foreigners… I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The harder to interpret line is what comes next, “you have made it a den of robbers.” Translated that way, it matches a condemnation of the extractive and manipulative practices of the Temple, the robbing of the poor. But reading it this way ignores the political situation at the time when the Gospel was written. Revolutionaries took over the Temple in 66 AD, several years before any of the Gospels were recorded. A multi-year rebellion ensued, starting at the Temple and then ending there with its destruction in 70 AD.
What our translation called “a den of robbers” could be better translated as “hive of rebellion.” Josephus, the historian writing at the same time as the Gospel authors, used this same kind of language when describing the rebel forts and hideouts.
The rebels were nationalists. They wanted to overthrow the Roman governors, to have a Jewish exit from the Roman Empire, a “Jexit.” The nationalists shared Jesus’ concern for the poor. In fact, when the rebellion did come, one of the first things the rebels did was to tear up and burn the debt agreements of the poor; that is, they canceled all the loans. So the nationalists shared Jesus’ concern for the poor.
But the nationalists couldn’t embrace the inclusive and internationalist vision of the Temple. Jesus spoke against them: This shall be a house of prayer for all people. And behind his declaration we can hear all his conversations with Samaritans, Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, and even the visit with the foreign Magi.
And so, in the first moment of this story, Jesus bound himself to the poor and vulnerable, those segregated out as “others.” And then in the second moment of this story, Jesus bound himself to foreigners and strangers, creating an inclusive vision of the world.
In the first moment, Jesus offended the wealthy and those who profited off of the poor. In the second moment, Jesus offended the nationalists and those who wanted to rebel. So in this story he turned the crowd against him. And yet he offered us a vision of what true faith looks like: solidarity with the vulnerable as we build an inclusive society.
One last thought: while the Old Testament doesn’t have any stories of a prophet overturning tables, lots of these kinds of stories circulated in the Roman and Greek world. In the pagan stories, the prophetic leader overturned the tables in a corrupt temple and then established a new table, a new tradition. In the pagan stories, whenever one table got overturned, the audience knew to look around for a new table being set up. We ought to do the same with Jesus.
Jesus overturned the tables in the temple. But he also set up a new table, the communion table, where all could be fed, all welcomed in, a table for the vulnerable of all the nations.
Jesus challenged the status quo of his society by overturning the tables in the Temple. He made clear - true holiness comes from solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. And God still calls for a house of prayer for all people, an inclusive, expansive house. This day, at whatever table you find yourself, I want you to look around that table with Jesus eyes. What’s going on with the poor and vulnerable at this table? Who’s there and who’s not? How can you make that table a more inclusive and expansive table for all people? Amen and Amen.
Every year the kindergarten children at the Milestones Daycare in our building open an art gallery. Heidi, the lead teacher, shares famous art work with the children. And then they make their own versions of the paintings. The halls outside their classroom - the same hallway as the choir room - are filled with their work.
I particularly like the works inspired by a Pablo Picasso’s “Blue Period.” The children make paintings of their own blue moments and then narrate explanations. Sophie painted her blue mood and added the caption, “One time Lani pulled my hair so hard it come out a bit.” Zora’s noted, “Me and my brother get in fights and call each other names - potty names. Then we have to go to our rooms.” And Louis, “I got bitten in the tummy by Oliver. But not our Oliver. The St. John’s Oliver. I never done something bad to him. He just bit me.” There’s an aching honesty to these works.
Looking at the paintings one can see the similarity to the masterpiece that inspired it. And yet the handiwork of the child comes through too.
In a way, this reminds me of the Gospels. Each Gospel presents famous scenes from the life of Jesus. Often they depict the same events, but show them in different ways. One can sense the actual event behind these portrayals; and yet the handiwork of each author comes through too.
Today we heard two of those different portrayals of Jesus. All of the Gospels tell some version of this story: Jesus healing a man who was blind. But each of them speak of it differently. Hearing these stories side-by-side, I first want to say that we’re hearing two versions of the same kind of event. Normally we look at them separately, but this morning I want to see what these two stories can teach us about how Jesus lived and, by extension, how we can live too.
In both stories, a man who was blind gained the ability to see. And while we might focus on that miracle, I think the greater lesson in each story concerns how Jesus helped each man express his own autonomy and agency.
Because the concept of agency underlies each of these different but parallel stories, I want to recall with you what this means. An “agent” is - as the dictionary might say - “the doer of action who exerts power.” As such, an agent can be contrasted to a victim. A victim is one who is acted upon, adversely, by the power of another. Jesus saw the men who were blind as agents, not victims. And when I say that, can’t you see the ways the crowd wanted to make those men victims. The crowd tried to silence one man; shut him up. And about the other they wonder, “did this man sin or his parents?”
To me the real meaning of these stories isn’t a cure of blindness but instead Jesus helping people claim their own agency.
To start with the Gospel of Mark: Jesus, on the road from Jericho, got accosted by a beggar shouting from the roadside. While others wanted to ignore the man, or at least shut him up, Jesus invited the man who was blind over to him. And when the man who was blind came to Jesus, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
It’s kind of an odd question. The man was blind. Surely Jesus could see that. And, of course, there was that whole Son of God thing which ought to have given him insight into what the man needed. And yet Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
One of my mentors once pointed out that most of us assume we know what people want, especially if they have a disability or challenge. And yet, if we pause, we could come up with all sorts of things the man could have wanted more than sight. He could have wanted Jesus to help him reconcile with his father. Or help finding someone to share his life. Perhaps a job. Or maybe something entirely different. The plain truth is: we never know until we ask, “What do you want me to do for you?”
By asking this question, Jesus showed respect for the man. The contrast with the crowd highlights Jesus’ respect. The crowd told the man to be quiet; they tried to silence him. But Jesus leaned in to listen, open to whatever he would ask. And interestingly, at a time when the disciples and crowd couldn’t quite see who Jesus was, Bartimaeus saw Jesus accurately, “You’re the Son of David, the Messiah.”
I wonder, “What would you say if Jesus asked you, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’” Could you sit with that question this week? To reflect deeply on what you would ask of Jesus? Prayer begins with that question.
But I also wonder what would happen if we started asking that question of important people in our lives. What do you want me to do for you? How would your spouse answer? Your best friend? A relative? A child? Too often we think we know how someone would answer but what if we took time this week to listen?
Jesus asked Bartimaeus a question Jesus didn’t know the answer to. “What do you want me to do for you?” When we ask people these kinds of questions, we allow them to exercise agency, to claim their voice and exert their choice over their own lives.
In the Gospel of John version of this healing story, Jesus doesn’t ask before curing the man of his blindness. But, in ways even more dramatically than in Mark, this gospel presents a story of a man claiming his own agency.
The man started the story as a passive participant in all the things happening around him. He remained mute, even when a crowd gathered around him to debate, “Did this man sin or did his parents?” How awful to hear yourself spoken of this way, pushed around by amateur moralists. The so-called religious talking about ‘your condition’ and ‘your sinfulness.’ (I can hardly imagine it).
Jesus healed the man but his situation didn’t improve much. At the beginning of the story, the man was silent but now that he can see, no one can see him. What slapstick! The crowd became blind to the man. But also what a statement on their myopia. The crowd could only recognize the man for his disability; they could only see his blindness and not his humanity.
The crowd took the man to the religious authorities. They poked and prodded him in an attempt to understand what happened. The man began to talk more, even explaining how Jesus healed him. “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” But this explanation made the authorities mad. Jesus had kneaded together spit and dirt to make the mud; kneading was prohibited on the Sabbath.
But still the crowd didn’t believe the man. They questioned his parents, who in an awkward moment barely acknowledge him. But each time the man was asked about what happened, his voice became clearer and stronger. The man stuck to his truth even in the face of losing family and community approval. He would not back down. And in the end of the story, when Jesus returns, the man proclaimed Jesus as his messiah. Like Bartimaeus, this man saw truly who Jesus was while everyone else remained blinded to the truth.
Looking at these two stories together, gives me a picture of Jesus as someone who worked for the agency of other people. He made sure others could have a voice. We’re called as disciples to act like Jesus. What would our faith look like if we dedicated ourselves to the agency, the voice, of other people?
So often in Christianity we’ve pictured the moral life as a struggle between right and wrong, sin and sanctity. But what if the spiritual journey wasn’t about such things. What if instead we focused on agency, on helping the voiceless find a voice and about learning to claim our own voices too?
I know this might embarrass him, but if we took Jesus as our model, if we were committed to make sure the voiceless had a voice, then we might find ourselves acting a lot like Earl Kammerud. Earl, as he mentioned, is moving down to Georgia to live near his daughter Betsy. But before he goes I want to celebrate Earl as a champion of justice. At numerous churches in Wisconsin, Earl worked to empower people to be the agents of their own lives, to claim their own authority and celebrate their own humanity regardless of what others saw.
Earl often made people aware of justice issues in creative and humorous ways. He served Faith Church down in Racine. The very proper people at Faith Church didn’t really see Jesus in the face of the vulnerable, hungry, homeless people in the city. So Earl recruited a young actor named Darren to come to church. Darren dressed up in a wig, added a few touches of make-up, and took on the persona of a man who was homeless.
And then Darren came into the church and sat down in a pew, arranging a few bags around him I’m sure. People got uncomfortable.
And then during the sermon, Earl revealed the ruse. He asked people to look at their feelings towards Darren. And, from this, to learn to see the humanity of those they might normally dismiss.
Earl, like Jesus in our story from John, even ran into his own trouble with religious authorities. Sometimes it was the authorities at his annual conference. And sometimes in his own congregation. At his congregation in Chetek, Wisconsin, Earl started raising questions about the dignity of gay and lesbian people. This ruffled some members. They didn’t want the church to become open and affirming. They couldn’t see those people as their brothers and sisters. Three pillars of the church came to see Earl in his office. He listened. And then he said, “I hear what you’re saying.” But Earl didn’t back away from his justice commitment. He cheekily added, “Just remember, I’m going to be the one doing your funeral. And you want me to say something nice.” Jesus could be snarky too.
Our path to being like Jesus can be a journey to greater and greater agency in our lives, not just finding our own voices but helping all who are silenced find their voices too. Sometimes it might mean asking questions and letting the other person say what they need. Sometimes it might mean learning to share our truth whatever others think. And sometimes it might mean getting snarky. But by all those means, we can help the voiceless find their voices. Amen and Amen.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man. Many of us, even if we know nothing much of the Bible, can connect Zacchaeus with that familiar ditty; we know about the wee little man. The song helps us remember the basic outlines of the story: Zacchaeus, the little man, couldn’t see Jesus, so he ran ahead, climbed a sycamore tree, and got called out by Jesus who planned to stay at his house.
This morning I want to think with you about this story but to ask a different set of questions then we normally pose. And I want to do so because I wonder about this story. Why did the crowd ridicule Zacchaeus as a wee little man? What did he see from the sycamore tree? And how did Jesus staying at his house change him?
First, why does this story emphasize Zacchaeus’ small stature? Why a wee little man? Folklore tales - and Zacchaeus is more folklore than history - often emphasize a physical quality of the character. Political satire does the same. During the recent campaign, President Trump used nicknames to devastating effect against his opponents. Just last year he called Marco Rubio “little Marco” and started off an internet meme of Rubio depicted as a child. Rubio never recovered from this infantilization of him. Rubio tried to strike back by referring to Trump’s “tiny hands,” a comment which has taken on its own life but could not save the life of Rubio’s campaign.
“Little Marco.” When we hear it, we know Rubio’s being roasted. And I think we ought to hear something of the same in the crowd laughing at Zacchaeus as the wee little man. They called him that to try to humble him, bring him down a notch, because of course Zacchaeus lorded over them as a tax-collector.
Ancient tax-collectors, as Brian Dettmering explained in our weekly email, operated as a privatized agency of the government. The Roman’s sold tax-collecting monopolies and the people who won these monopolies then collected all the taxes they wanted in that region. This ruthless system made tax-collectors both very rich and very hated. The crowd hated Zacchaeus; wanted to shun him. Calling him a wee little man helped release their anger.
Luke, as a storyteller, developed this anger towards Zacchaeus into a complicated meme. It revolved around the description of Zacchaeus. “There was a little man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich.” Now, in looking at this description, it’s important to know that the name Zacchaeus means “righteous” and “justice.” And there was no office of “chief tax-collector”; no other ancient Greek text mentions it; Luke just meant he was a ‘head-honcho.’ And of course the wealth of Zacchaeus came from the oppressive, extortive practice of over-taxing the poor. So Luke’s audience heard, “there was a very little big tax-collector; he was called justice despite his unjustly gained money.”
The story seemed to build on this animus towards Zacchaeus, seemed to be another version of the wee little man meme. We heard of Zacchaeus running. Wealthy men didn’t run in Zacchaeus’ day; it was beneath them. But little Zacchaeus scampered along and then climbed a tree. Not even a man but a kid! A ridiculous man-child; the tax-collecting infant, preposterous.
And just as the crowd thought this way, we must know Jesus is up to something. Astute readers will remember what came just before this story. Just a few verses before the story of wee little Zacchaeus who couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowd, came the story of another crowd who prevented the little children from coming to Jesus. To them Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And now we have Zacchaeus acting like a little child.
Suddenly the disparaging nickname of the crowd came back on it. Turns out everyone must become a wee little man. I love political satire, but I wonder what Jesus might say about it. Of our laughter at wee little men, at Little Marco, and tiny hands?
This story of Zacchaeus reminds me of the limits of humor. Jesus wanted to change Zacchaeus, to convert him, to transform him. The crowd laughing at scampering Zacchaeus didn’t change the heart of the tax-collector. Ridicule rarely creates change. Jesus, as the story unfolds, sought out a relationship.
The crowd wanted to disparage Zacchaeus, to physically and symbolically freeze him out of the community; to punish and shun him. It all came as an attempt to put Zacchaeus in his place. And yet, it didn’t transform Zacchaeus. Jesus wanted change. “I came to seek out and save the lost.”
What would we do differently if we took “seeking out and saving the lost” as our primary mission? Would it change our humor? Motivate us to connect across the lines of ideology and conflict in our culture? How would we reach out to the Zacchaeus’ in our lives?
This story also makes me wonder about the sycamore tree. Why did Zacchaeus climb it and what did he see from it? At a practical level, the sycamore tree had sturdy branches which grew close to the ground. Perfect for a child, or a wee chief tax-collector, to climb.
But why a sycamore tree? At first I thought it might be connected to one of the sayings of Jesus. At one point the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, to make them stronger believers. But Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Did Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree symbolize how faith moved him from exploiting the poor to becoming their benefactor?
Then I learned that the sycamore tree, also known as a mulberry fig tree, produced small figs which the desperately poor gathered for food. The figs weren’t very good; but they provided some nourishment to the very poor. So Zacchaeus, the man who got wealthy defrauding the poor, came to climb a tree that feed the poor. Perhaps a few of the poor that Zacchaeus exhorted into poverty were gathering a few figs as he climbed up to see Jesus. It would be like a merciless landlord climbing up on top of a food pantry’s roof to see a parade. And while there, noticing all of the desperation of his tenants.
Understood this way, the sycamore tree represents Zacchaeus’ confrontation with the effects of his own greed. It changed him.
We all need those Zacchaeus moments when we see and understand the life experience of other people. As I’ve mentioned to you over the last few months, Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum from Congregation Shir Hadash and I wanted to get outside our usual political bubble. We wanted to hear and listen to the concerns of people in “Red Wisconsin.” Earlier in March, Tiferet and I took our first trip.
We went up to Juneau, Wisconsin, the county seat of Dodge County. The school district grew as a cobbled together merger of small towns around Juneau. It’s one of the poorer school districts in the state. Rabbi Tiferet and I met with the superintendent of the district, Dr. Annette Thompson.
We talked about the district and specifically how her students experience poverty. The contours of poverty in her rural district differed some from Milwaukee. But not that much. The district lacks employment opportunities; some large farming and production facilities exist but they have trouble getting workers to come in. A cheese making factory is even exploring how to run a bus service. Transportation issues; it’s one of the same issues we debate in Milwaukee.
As Dr. Thompson ran through the challenges of poverty in her district, I asked, “What’s the biggest challenge you face as a leader?” Without a pause she said, “apathy.” And then Dr. Thompson told us the story of the strip clubs. For one way to measure the problems in her district - over a hundred square miles - comes down to 1, 2, 3. One grocery store. Two strip clubs. And three gas stations.
At some point strip clubs started opening in rural Wisconsin as a way to launder money; the cash business offered an easy way to make illicit money legitimate. The state government warned rural towns to enact or even just consider restrictions on strip clubs. Nearby communities passed these laws. But not Juneau. The town council couldn’t rouse itself to consider the issue and so two strip clubs soon opened up.
Apathy felt almost tangible across the rural area. Tangible in the town of Lowell, where all of the once grand brick downtown is now condemned as uninhabitable, but still people squat in them. Or in the park of another small town, where children can’t play because of the drug dealing. Or in the family farms falling apart as big-ag takes over the landscape.
I didn’t leave Juneau with a solution. But I saw there some of the same problems we face here in Milwaukee; apathy. What can we do in our lives to climb sycamore trees? What can we do to gain insight in how others live? And how will that change our lives?
The awakening of Zacchaeus’ consciousness that began in the sycamore tree ended with his invitation to his own home. I say it that way, because I want to underscore how odd Jesus’ speech to Zacchaeus would have sounded.
Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” I must stay at your house; Jesus invited himself over. A very odd request, one that confounded the patterns of hospitality and broke the rules of class.
It’s part of a larger pattern of rule-breaking that happens in this story. Zacchaeus broke several rules of decorum by acting like a child, running and climbing. And now Jesus does the same, inviting himself to dinner. What kinds of social rules does faith call us to break?
For breaking rules seems to underlie what Jesus said in his invitation to Zacchaeus. Our translation renders the Greek word katalou into the phrase “stay at your house.” But the verb literally means “to unbind.” It has the sense of removing a harness, unyoking an animal, loosening a bit, untying. It’s as if Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, it’s time to become unburdened.”
And that’s how Zacchaeus heard it. For the invitation to unbind and to loose burdens led him to a remarkable announcement. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus, whose name meant justice, finally lived up to his own name; he made right all the wrongs he did.
Again, astute listeners to the Gospel will hear in Zacchaeus an echo of an earlier story. Before Jesus got to Jericho, he encountered a wealthy man who had a lot of possessions. The man wanted to find the secret to eternal life. Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the money to poor, and join his movement of liberation. The man left sad. Jesus noted then, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, with Zacchaeus, Jesus found a rich man ready to go through the eye of the needle, ready to make right his wrongs, to embrace justice.
In this moment, we see something of the kind of conversion Jesus sought. Jesus didn’t work for some spiritual insight on the part of Zacchaeus. Jesus didn’t work for some intellectual or dogmatic affirmation. Jesus wanted Zacchaeus to change how he lived with other people. Zacchaeus made an ethical conversion, changing how he related to the people around him, especially the poor.
In Christianity our greatest debates concern dogma, intellectual and spiritual debates. But again and again in the Gospels, Jesus only concerns himself with actual people: what’s happening to the poor and vulnerable, the lost and the forsaken. What would change in our faith if we took ethical questions as our most important? Meeting Jesus changed how Zacchaeus lived with the poor in his city; how will our encounters with Jesus affect how we live in this city?
These are the questions I wonder about when I hear about Zacchaeus. Amen and Amen.
We begin the season of Lent every year with the same stories: Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation in the Garden and Jesus resisting temptation in the desert. These stories frame the whole season, a time of introspection and reflection as we prepare for Holy Week, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our Christian tradition, in beginning the season with these stories, wants us to look at the role of temptation in our own lives. The message: repent of your temptations so you can be ready when Jesus comes. And yet, I’ve come to wonder, is temptation the best way to understand our spiritual struggles in life? Is temptation the problem?
After Fat Tuesday, I might say temptation is MY spiritual problem. This year I hosted a church dinner at my house. About thirty of us gathered for a pancake dinner supplemented with lots of treats - donuts, pastries, paczki. But we came for more than just breakfast served as dinner; our purpose was a discussion of immigration and the resolution of our Christian movement to make our state more welcoming to immigrants.
Two things happened at the end of the meal. First, about five people agreed to work on immigration issues. I’m excited to see where their work leads us. But second, people left behind their donuts, pastries, and paczki. So Ash Wednesday, with all those sweets, turned into Fat Wednesday. And then Fat Thursday.
I’m not good with temptation. And it’s because I’m a pastry whisperer. Some people are dog whisperers or horse whisperers. My brother has that gift; after three decades working with horses, he knows intuitively what they think. But I’m a pastry whisperer. Which means I can make a pretty good choux pastry. Even more, I can hear the pastries crying to me on the counter. “Don’t let us go stale!” Eating them was an act of kindness.
So there comes that moment on Ash Wednesday, when you see in the mirror, ashes on your forehead and the remains of the powdered donut massacre, and you think, “Holy Temptations.”
And so Lent starts. Someone, something tempts; the donut whispers, the snake slithers.
Our primary Christian way to speak of sin closely connects to the language of temptation. We remember the snake tempting Adam and Eve. And the devil, following Jesus into the desert, testing and tempting him. We even call the devil the Tempter.
But is that really true? Is the source of our troubles outside of us? Is it really the donut who tempts? Or does this language of temptation allow us to “outsource” the cause of our troubles. I may joke that the donut tempted me into breaking my diet - the donut made me do it - but my confession just seems lame. Of course the pastry defense has been tried before. Back in the late 1970’s the first openly gay politician in America, Harvey Milk, was assassinated by his colleague Dan White. White mounted a “Twinkie Defense,” as if a sugary snack made him kill others.
A focus on temptation - a focus on someone or something tempting us into trouble - makes particular problems for those whom society regards as “the other.” But the Twinkie Defense doesn’t make sense. Nor does the “what she wore” defense.
The effect of a temptation-focused spirituality on people regarded as society’s outsiders can be seen in an old event in American history. We’ve all heard of the Salem Witch Trials, the seventeenth century panic about witches taking over a small New England town. But we often forget the racial component. The ministers investigating the stories heard again and again about black devils tempting the young white women in the forests. This would become the familiar racist troupe of our nation: the need for the white men to protect the white women from the black devils. And this phobia about devils and witches arose just at a moment when people began to question the social hierarchies of New England. The Witch Hunt ended a social movement for equality.
Our society continually portrays people without power as the Tempter. Blacks in Salem and up to the present, the female seductress, even the transgender person just looking to use a bathroom is now the demonic Tempter trying to lead children astray. A spirituality guarding against temptations seems invariably to reinforce social inequalities. And it’s never good for those who are poor, different, or of color.
So this Lent, this introspective season, I realized the need for a new language about sin and troubles for myself. I heard it in the recent film about James Baldwin, “I’m not your negro.” The film doesn’t offer a documentary review of Baldwin’s life. Instead, it comes across like a video-essay, bringing Baldwin’s sharp insight to bear against the America of the his day and our day in such moments as when the film has Baldwin speaking about violence against African-Americans while the screen shows images of Ferguson, Missouri.
So this Lent, this introspective season, I realized the need for a new language about sin and troubles for myself. I heard it in the recent film about James Baldwin, “I’m not your negro.” The film doesn’t offer a documentary review of Baldwin’s life. Instead, it comes across like a video-essay, bringing Baldwin’s sharp insight to bear against the America of the his day and our day in such moments as when the film has Baldwin speaking about violence against African-Americans while the screen shows images of Ferguson, Missouri.
At one point in the film, the screen showed images of American television shows like Jerry Springer while Baldwin says:
To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly. These images are designed not to trouble, but to reassure. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.
This powerful critique gets right to the heart of the matter. “We’re trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.” And trapped not by some external power, trapped not by some Tempter, but trapped by our own refusal to see ourselves. The shows Baldwin scorns don’t come as temptations but distractions. Baldwin saw the lengths to which we will go to distract ourselves from reality, to refuse to see and hear and know what was being done to our neighbors.
I find the language of distraction much more powerful than the language of temptation. Perhaps this is too forced a distinction, but it feels like temptation comes from outside of myself but distraction from inside. Temptation threatens purity; concerns about temptation are all about purity. But distraction affects purpose; distractions keep me from my purpose. I care far more about purpose than purity.
The story of Jesus and the devil in the desert speaks to this distinction. Jesus faced distractions. Just before our reading from the Gospel came the story of Jesus’ baptism, that amazing moment when he heard from heaven, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Now, in our reading, Jesus goes into the desert to reflect and pray about this blessing he heard. Or, to restate it in more contemporary terms, he went off to a quiet place to think about his purpose. Concentrating on his purpose became the springboard to his frenetic action and teaching until he landed in Jerusalem. From the desert to the cross he demonstrated a tremendous concentration of purpose, a clarity about himself and what he would be.
But in the desert something happened. The gospel writer speaks of the devil, a Tempter, coming to him. But I think all these temptations resided in his own heart, more distractions from his purpose than attempts on his purity. Distractions about the use of power - make some bread. Distractions about importance - see if God will save you. Distractions about vanity - make yourself king of the earth. All of these distracted Jesus from his purpose.
Each of them wasn’t bad in and of themselves. Afterall: Jesus would make bread, feeding thousands. Jesus would see God save him, the resurrection. Jesus would become celebrated as king of the world by disciples in every nation. And yet at that moment in the desert, each of these came as distractions from his purpose.
Distractions keep us from our purpose too. The movie about James Baldwin sent me back into his books. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin spoke to the deep and abiding power of emotions like hatred to distract us. He said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Isn’t this what unfolded in Kansas a week or two ago? A white man filled with hate saw two Indian immigrants relaxing in a bar. He spoke scornfully to them and was asked to leave. But hate filled him. And he returned with a gun, killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounding Alok Madasani. He used hatred to avoid the pain of his own life and failures.
But Baldwin - when he spoke of the distraction of hate - was not talking about racists in America but his own heart. Baldwin hated his father with a shocking intensity. In his father’s death he confronted this distracting hatred of his own heart. The hatred distracted him from the pain of his longing for a real relationship.
Jesus had to face the distractions in his heart before he could pursue his purpose. And likewise with Baldwin, whose greatest contributions and deepest insights came after he faced his own distracting hatred. For both men, their searing insights came because they deeply knew themselves as they were.
Traditionally, Lent comes as a season to face our temptations. To give something up that tempts us. But this year I’m going to use Lent to face my distractions. To focus; to take Baldwin’s challenge to deal with myself as I am.
Recently I heard Tim Ferriss describe his own practice to deal with distractions. Ferriss, a Silicon Valley tech investor, makes a habit of “social media fasts.” For him this means a screen-free Saturday, a screen-free sabbath.
Ferriss explained why such fasts matter to him. As a tech industry insider, he knows the whole business model depends on distracting us, incentivizing us to click on things, until we can’t focus on our primary work. In this way, we get conditioned to be reactive. Stress mounts; leading Ferriss to ask, “Are you using your tech or is your tech using you?”
I hear in his question the same challenge Baldwin gave. Do we entertain away any insight into the world and ourselves?
Ferriss’ solution came as a fast. He explained, “The intention is to help bolster yourself to be more resilient in an economy - online at least - based on distraction.”
So I’m trying a fast (not of those tempting donuts); a weekly fast from email this Lent. I decided to try fasting from checking my email from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, the Biblical sabbath. Conveniently this lets me check email before Sunday service.
So far, it was a rough start this weekend. Fasting hasn’t led to some blissful spiritual insight; mostly I just realized how often I’m on email. And how hard it might be for me to take on Ferriss’ “no screen” level of fasting. But I think next Saturday will go better; and probably the Saturday after that too. I’m interested in how the time reclaimed from the distraction of email will allow me to see and hear and know more deeply.
We pattern Lent on Jesus in the desert. He spent forty days; we spend forty days. This year I’m going to use it as a season to look at the distractions in my own heart. And to seek the clarity to, as Baldwin challenged us, see the world and myself as we really are.
Amen and Amen.
"Facing the Ugliness of Hate with Salt and Light" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 19, 2017
On Friday, as I mentioned in our weekly email, Crystal and I hung new signs outside the church, “Jesus Didn’t Reject People. Neither Do We.” The slogan comes from our Christian movement, the United Church of Christ, as an expression of our commitment to inclusion. We felt good about the message we hung up. A neighbor walked by and said how much she longed to see such signs everywhere. It seemed as if earth itself, on that beautiful Friday, shared our sense of joyful purpose.
Afterwards, back in the office, Crystal played a voicemail message that came in while we were outside. A hateful message. I debated whether or not to share it this morning.
But as I thought about it, I remembered all of the recent hateful speech and actions I’ve heard across our country. Locally, our JCC closed because of a bomb threat. The children in the daycare didn’t know what was happening when the adults shepherded them down the street to the Richards Elementary School. The little children just thought they got a special day at a new playground; a field trip; the adults worked hard to make it fun. But they knew; a man felt such hatred in his heart that he longed to hurt and frighten them.
It was probably a hoax, but had to be taken seriously. Because making these kinds of threats can be the way people work themselves into action. Actions like those of a white supremacist who shot and killed six at a mosque in Quebec.
All of this was in my mind as I listened to the message on our voicemail. What to do with this ugliness? Part of me wanted to ignore it, to shake it off and move on. But I realize that hatred must be faced, named, talked about.
We need to tell the truth about hatred. In part, because hate speech aims to shut us up; to silence us. Those are reactions of shame. That’s one of the reasons why people use hate speech; to shame us into silence. And so resistance begins with naming the lies that are told about us.
And when we name vile things said about us then we begin to inoculate ourselves. An inoculation takes a bit of the virus and exposes our immune system to it so that our bodies can recognize and organize against a viral threat. I think something similar happens with hate speech. We need to be able to recognize it, to spot the vile virus. And then our spirits can organize against it.
To be inoculated against hate speech is different than to be desensitized. We become desensitized when we get used to responding to hatred with silence. The problem with desensitization is that one doesn’t organize and mount a resistance. But inoculation means your resistance is strengthened: you can recognize it and respond appropriately.
When I thought of it that way then I realized we needed to hear a bit of what was said in our voicemail message. The caller, spitting out his words, said, “You’re disgusting. You’re a vagina show. There’s a place in hell waiting for you. Don’t call yourself a church.”
Ugly words. But not my first time hearing ugly words on our voicemail or getting them in a letter or even chalked on the sidewalk. But I did hear something new in this message. Vagina show. No one has ever accused me of going there before.
I was actually so surprised by that part of the message. Usually it’s our acceptance of LGBT people that gets us the hate messages. Normally I’m called a fag. Or told about Sodom and Gomorrah as if I’d never heard of that text. Didn’t this caller know I was gay? How much more out do I have to be? But then I realized this was in response to my sermon two weeks ago about reproductive freedom. I’d shared the sermon on Facebook and then it got shared there and on some blogs; that was the show.
Realizing this sent me back to our Gospel lesson for today. “You are salt of the earth,” Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” These words come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’ve gotten so used to the way that we read these verses that I forgot - until Friday - the context. Traditionally we read the Beatitudes one week and then the Salt and Light reading another week and then the rest of Jesus’ Sermon on the remaining weekends. But in context, right before Jesus called his followers to be Salt and Light, he offered this Beatitude. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against; rejoice and be glad; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The call to be Salt and Light came after Jesus acknowledged the way his followers - you and I - would be reviled. The call to be Salt and Light came with Jesus’ inoculating his followers from hateful and vile speech and actions.
And so I come to these words about Salt and Light wanting to know how they can help us deal with the ugliness of hatred.
Salt. I use salt in cooking. You’ll find several kinds in my pantry. Table salt. Kosher salt. Sea salt. Pink salt. And even smoked salt. Each has their purpose. But I’ve often puzzled over this passage because none of these salts has ever lost its saltiness. And that’s because salt is a chemically stable compound.
So I looked into this. Some biblical scholars pointed out that the phrase “salt of the earth” ought to be contrasted with “salt of the sea.” So Jesus is talking about a salt gathered or mined from the earth; rock salt. In Israel this salt of the earth often gets inadvertently mixed with gypsum dust carried in by the wind but often looks like salt. If the content of gypsum gets too great then the salt will not taste salty. Hmm. Maybe; but it sounds like a too perfect explanation. Perhaps that’s why one can abbreviate Biblical Studies down to BS.
Personally, it sounds like Jesus to give us a puzzler, to make us wonder about salt losing its saltiness until we realize that of course salt never does. Salt remains constant. And that’s what we need to do when facing hatred: remain constant.
What’s that about? Looking into that lead me down a rabbit hole until I was reading about pre-modern farming techniques. Turns out they used salt to destroy weeds - it burned the roots of the shallow weeds while increasing the moisture retention of the soil so as to help the plants. Salt could also make the grass sweeter for cattle and keep rust away from wheat. But manure? Well I guess farmers once used salt to preserve manure just as we use salt to preserve meat. The salt kept the manure fresh and full of fertilizing goodness. So it turns out salting your soil and your manure is a real thing (not just BS).
Jesus knew people threw salt on barren land to make it possible for things to grow; they threw salt on manure to enhance its fertilizing ability. As Anthony Bradley interpreted it, Jesus calls us salt because “we are intended to bring life and flourishing out of decaying manure piles and arid soil where nothing grows—spheres of society that are dead, barren, or rotting.”
Jesus is building up our ability to resist. Starting with the Beatitudes, he didn’t pretend life would be sunshine and roses but spoke honestly about the reality of oppression. And then he taught his followers how to respond. Be salt; be constant. Be salt; bring life to barren places.
When we face hatred - hearts harder than soil baked in the sun, words and actions that are just a pile of manure - then we know, “we’ve got work to do.” Our lives are meant to be salt to that soil and that manure.
Isn’t that what we’re doing with our work on racial equity? Being constant on this issue. Salting our own privilege. Nurturing new growth and possibility for racial relations in Milwaukee.
And light. Jesus challenged his followers to be the light of the world. These words inspired John Winthrop, even before his ship landed in America, to speak of founding a “city on a hill” that would inspire the world because of the quality of life and devotion of its inhabitants. Starting in the 1960’s, our presidents picked this up as a refrain for America: John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush all liked to speak of our nation as a city on a hill.
But Jesus said it first. And in a context different than any president. For he knew the reality of being reviled. Facing opposition, facing hatred, some might counsel lying low. “Don’t make waves.” “Don’t call attention to yourself.” So many ways of pressuring ourselves to self-edit.
But Jesus did the opposite. A light can not be hid. Your light can not be hid.
I think Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the reason why Jesus wanted us to let our light shine. He said once:
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Jesus knew this truth too: hate cannot drive out hate. It’s why he told Peter to put away his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. Resisting hatred calls forth our best light, the kind of light we saw in Martin Luther King, Jr.
And that light is the truth of our souls, our soul truth. Light can’t be hidden very well. Nor can the truth. The truth will always come out. It may take a long time. But the truth comes out, even if it takes decades, generations.
Just this winter more truth finally came out about Emmett Till. Till, just fourteen years old, went to visit family in the south. A white store clerk accused black Till of flirting with her. Her husband and a friend kidnapped Till, tortured and beat him, and threw his body in a river. All back in 1955. But now that store clerk admits she lied on the stand. Till never “grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities.” Sixty years after his gruesome death, Emmett Till’s truth is finally seeing the light of day.
And I can’t think of Emmett Till without remembering his mother. She took his body back to Chicago but she didn’t hide her grief. She invited the world to see, opened his casket, made plain what was done to her little boy by showing his beaten and bloated body. What courage it must have taken, what strength of person; yet she held up a light like a city on a hill that illuminated all the evil of racism in our country.
Hatred, as it did with Till’s murder, tries to hid the truth. But the truth will come out.
Jesus knew people facing hatred might try to hide their truth. But Jesus called them to be public, to let their truth shine, illuminating the night like a city on a hill.
Jesus faced hatred. In doing so he wanted to inoculate his followers from it. Our body politic may be infected; which is why Jesus’ needs us as T-cells ready to recognize and organize against hatred.
Salt and light; these are Jesus’ plan to deal with ugly hatred. Be constant. Bring hardened hearts to life. Let your truth blaze.
Alleluia and Amen.
"Into the Lions' Den" The Gospel of Double Consciousness by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - February 12, 2017
Recently I turned back to one of my old books. David had a project for school and it led me to pick up W.E.B. duBois’ The Souls of Black Folks. In that book, written over a century ago, duBois described a “double consciousness.” duBois’ phrase spoke to the way he experienced the world both as an American and as someone who felt oppressed by America; a double conscious born of living as a racial other in a country dominated by whites.
He powerfully described this sensation of doubleness when he said:
One ever feels his twoness,
-- an American, a Negro;
Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings;
Two warring ideals in one dark body,
whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Deep in the soul, duBois said, “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
duBois has always spoken to me. I knew a kind of double consciousness being gay and American. I know African-Americans continue - a century after duBois - to feel this double consciousness. And I realize that many in our country - immigrants, Muslims - feel a kind of double consciousness too.
Do you feel this in your soul? A multiplicity of identities striving inside of you? A conscious pride in America and conscious awareness that one is not fully accepted in America? Or this present America? A tension between being white and what whiteness means in our society?
Daniel lived more than two millennia before duBois. He would not have spoken of a double consciousness to describe himself. And yet, he lived with such a mix of identities - partly in, partly out; accepted, rejected; loving and seeing all that was unlovable in his country. And so I realized this week, Daniel can be read as a Gospel of Double Consciousness. In a time when our biggest national struggles concern who belongs and who does not, we need a word from the Gospel of Double Consciousness.
I’d recommend reading the whole book of Daniel but today we’ll stick to the story we heard from the Bible and saw enacted in drama this morning - Daniel and the Lions’ Den.
All of this took place during and after the Exile. The Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem and taken much of its population into exile, into slavery. Daniel rose as a servant in the new empire, an exile who landed on his feet. The Babylonians were then defeated by the Persians. Cyrus the Great freed the Jews but many stayed behind in their new home; Daniel stayed with them. And there he again rose in prominence, becoming a key administrator in the new empire.
Of course there could not have been an actual Daniel who served four different emperors over the course of more than 100 years; this is folklore. But the folklore is meant to explore how Jews lived in the empire of the Babylonians and the Persians, how they lived with a double consciousness.
In the story of Daniel and the Lions we get a view of Daniel in the court of the Persians. The other court officials resented Daniel and his influence with the emperor. The Persians looked at Daniel as a person who didn’t belong. They asked themselves, “How did this Jew get here?” and “How did he get ahead of us?” The Persians said amongst themselves, “This Daniel, this foreigner, is making us a stranger in our own land.”
Arlie Hochschild wrote about a similar dynamic in American society. As a sociologist, she spent years looking at the resentments of white Americans. She found what she called the deep story behind the resentment. As she explained:
“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”
Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them... Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed.”
That’s how the Persians viewed Daniel - a cheater, a line-cutter, someone whose very success came at their expense; his life making them feel betrayed.
The deep grievance the Persians felt made them scheme against Daniel. The Persians planned to use Daniel’s religion against him. So they convinced the emperor to issue an executive order; they lobbied him, saying, “Establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.”
The Persians knew Daniel couldn’t in good conscience follow the order. Essentially, the Persians wanted to force Daniel to make an impossible choice between his dual identities, to force him to resolve his double consciousness by abandoning his “Jewishness” for his “Persian-ness.”
I’m just diving deep into this story, but doesn’t that sound like a struggle in America today? We tell people with hyphenated identities to assimilate by acting white. Just think: we have few African-American women as politicians, but we have even less with kinky hair. (Gwen Moore is the only one I can think of.) We have few gay politicians, but none who “act gay.” (I know what you're thinking: Lindsey Graham. But he doth protest he’s straight.) And can we even imagine a Muslim running for office in a head scarf? (Keith Ellison took the oath using Thomas Jefferson’s Qur'an and nearly brought down the house in controversy.) Such people would be dismissed as engaging in “identity politics” all because they don’t suppress their own identities.
Daniel knew following the emperor’s command would contradict his own principles. He couldn’t do both, couldn’t be true to both his identities. And so, Daniel engaged in civil disobedience by praying publicly to the God of Israel.
Now translations of this moment differ. Some - like our Pew Bible - emphasize Daniel continuing to do what he had always done. “Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” But other translations speak of Daniel being intentionally provocative. “Daniel went home and opened his windows.” I prefer this translation because it makes Daniel into a defiant hero, one who refused to compromise himself. (Today, he’d be at the airport praying five times a day.)
Mahatma Gandhi read the story this way too. Gandhi would have recognized himself in the double consciousness duBois described. An Indian living in South Africa under white hegemony; he might have had a triple consciousness. He lead protests against the treatment of Indians in South Africa including an effort by the colonial authorities to create a registry of all the Indians.
Gandhi’s leadership of protests against racism and registries in South Africa led him to articulate the concept of Satyagraha. He explained this concept by referring back to the story of Daniel, saying, “Its root meaning is “holding on to truth”; hence, truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force…When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha in its purest form.”
In remembering the story of Daniel, we most often remember his facing down the lions. But I think Gandhi is right to draw attention to his active resistance, his Satyagraha, his soul-force. Daniel refused to comply with a law he thought wrong; and he refused to resist quietly. He violated the law with his windows thrown open.
One of the great unsung heroes of the civil rights movement was Josephine Baker. She refused to hide herself, to accept the limitations that prejudice tried to impose on her life. So often, like a later-day Daniel, she flung open the window. Back in 1951, Josephine Baker returned to America from France. Her tour of America included a stop for lunch at the Biltmore in Los Angeles.
A white man eating nearby scowled, “I won’t stay in the same room with her.” (Actually, he used another word I won’t say.) Baker wouldn’t cow to his racism. She called the police on the man and then followed the squad car to the station to make sure they actually charged him, and took to the press to denounce his “un-American” and “un-democratic” behavior. This was in 1951!
Josephine Baker was shockingly provocative - claiming her double identity with pride and asserting her right to equality with amazing force. She succeeded in part because of her celebrity status but Daniel would have recognized her as a sister who would not bow to false gods.
Daniel’s defiance landed him in the lions’ den. The emperor tried to save Daniel from his own command. He begged Daniel to recant. Daniel stayed true. When he finally sent Daniel to his death, the emperor fasted and couldn’t sleep. Guilt for what he had done plagued the emperor. That’s the power of resistance: to show the costs to real people of oppressive laws and orders.
We mostly think of the gruesomeness of the lions - sharp teeth, ferocious power. But lions in the Bible have even more meaning as symbolic creatures of chaos. We hear this in our morning Psalm, where the accusers of an innocent man, the accusers of a man much like Daniel, are imagined as lions.
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
Unexpectedly, Daniel survived the lions, survived the accusers, survived the chaos monsters. The emperor rejoiced to find Daniel alive; so much so that he almost seems to become a convert to Judaism. (Indeed other stories in the Bible credit this emperor with rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.)
Daniel’s story of unexpected reversal - one despised, now saved, finally vindicated - follows the pattern of Psalm 22. We could even imagine Daniel having composed it himself. But we probably most remember this Psalm because it was on the lips of Jesus when he died, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me.”
Jesus quoting it on the cross reminds us that his story connects to all the stories of resistance: back to Daniel and forward to Gandhi and beyond. Like Daniel, a stone was rolled in front of his final chamber; and like Daniel, the powers of chaos could not contain him, because the power of chaos cannot stop soul-force.
We face situations of injustice today. Oppression wrapped up in the rule of law and order. But like Daniel, Jesus, and Josephine we can resist. To forge, as duBois imagined, “a self-conscious personhood, to merge our double self into a better and truer self.” And so to say to God with Daniel, with Jesus, with Josephine:
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our native land. Alleluia and Amen.
A few months ago a friend and I talked about the ethics of abortion and reproductive freedom. And as we talked, he pressed me, “Where in the Bible do you find support for the pro-choice position?” The question came from a sincere place, a real desire to know.
And the question made me think. I realized that in twenty years as your pastor, I have not talked about the spiritual or theological reasons I’ve come to be pro-choice. And so this morning I want to think with you about our faith and what it teaches about moral questions like reproductive choice.
At the beginning I want to say that abortion - like questions about homosexuality and racism and many more - are issues we struggle with that didn’t occur to the authors of the Bible. Or at least, didn’t occur to them in the way that we ask our questions. We will not find our answer by looking for that one chapter and verse. Instead, we must find a scriptural rudder to guide us into our new waters; not a Biblical citation but a Biblical concept.
We also need a Biblical concept instead of just a citation because advocating for reproductive choice or LGBT rights or that Black Lives Matter is a long struggle. Back in the 1950’s, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about his work as a “stride toward freedom.” King worked on the long stride; it was not a dash to freedom, not a 50-yard sprint. If you’re making a sprint, then perhaps a Bible citation will do. But King faced a marathon; he needed spiritual power. To keep up the pace, we need more than the quick hit of a citation; the long race requires concepts of spiritual power.
A marathon runner gets power for the long race by carb-loading. Pasta dinner, rice, potatoes, energy food. I need to carb-load too for the stride toward freedom. To spiritually carb-load. I need communion.
I grew up Catholic; we had communion every week. I remember my parents preparing me to receive communion for the first time. We practiced with goldfish. I would walk up solemnly and my dad who give me a goldfish. It was important to be quiet, reverential. Number one rule: don’t drop the goldfish. I was ready when I first received communion.
Growing up there was a choice. The priest could put the wafer in your hands - you brought it up without touching it again - or the priest could put it in your mouth - which was the more pious way. Even before I knew any theology, I got the spiritual message: our bodies are dangerous, our bodies can profane the holy. These messages about the holy and the body, the sacred and the profane, shaped so much of our religious tradition.
And yet, how odd, because when Jesus gathered with his disciples one last time, he said to them, “This is my body.” For two thousand years we’ve gathered at tables, to celebrate the holy mystery of a body. Which means all our separation of the sacred and the profane, of the holy and the body, must be a distortion of what Jesus meant. For he said, “This is my body.”
A bodily spirituality, that’s what I need as we strive toward freedom. A spirituality embodied; a spirituality in the world; a spirituality grounded; one professingly profane.
Paul and Isaiah both point to such an embodied spirituality. Recall Paul’s critique. It didn’t matter to him how piously the church celebrated communion if they ignored the hunger and poverty of their brothers and sisters. No solemnly sung “Alleluia” should distract them from the body of their neighbor. Paul made clear, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.” The most sacred ritual of our faith demands we discern the body. And not just some mystical Body of Christ, but the bodies around us: “When you come together,” Paul said, “it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”
In a similar way, Isaiah called people to see the bodies around them instead of getting lost in chanting Amen’s. Isaiah heard God say, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
Even before talking about a current question like abortion, I want to take as my Biblical rudder a bodily spirituality, an embodied faith. So that when I come to wonder about a question like abortion, I come knowing the answer will be tied to Jesus’ words, “This is my body.”
I said before that there wasn’t any one citation that can make sense of the abortion question. But that’s not quite right. For there is, as far as I can tell, one verse in the Bible that talks about abortion or in this context, a physically induced miscarriage. It comes in the midst of legislation about slavery. First - this is in Exodus 21 - the Bible lays out the regulations about what happens if a master beats a slave, making a distinction between if the slave dies immediately from the beating or if he dies a day or two later. The Bible moves from this question to that of abortion; it says that if a man beating a woman causes the death of a fetus then the penalty will be assessed by the father of the fetus. Then the Bible moves on to consider what happens if the beating of a slave leads to the loss of an eye or a tooth.
A few things stand out. First, the woman in this case has no voice. The father of the fetus determines if there is a penalty. And second, this comes right alongside of other people who do not have a voice over their own bodies, slaves. Passages like these are why we’re not Biblical literalists.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with the question of abortion but I keep coming back to this bedrock: people must have a voice over their own bodies. In no moral sense can our bodies be the property of another to command and control. We have to be able to say, “This is my body.”
Our autonomy over our own bodies - our inalienable right to our own body - was never self-evident in American history. The defenders of slavery found many Biblical proof texts to quote in support of their control of another person’s body. But chapter and verse did not make it right.
It came to an end because African-Americans boldly said, “No, this is my body.” The first African-American poet widely published in this country, Phyllis Wheatley, said it in her poem about being brought as a six-year old captive from Ghana. She wrote in part:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
She knew all the evil that comes when one person tries to control the body of another: stolen from her home, sent on the Middle Passage, sold like an animal, under the threat of bodily harm, all by people who dismissed her body and its worth. Wheatley pushed back. “I’m taking my place in the angelic train.”
Frederick Douglass, even more clearly, spoke against the control of black bodies by white people. (Not everyone seems to know this, but Frederick Douglass has died). During his lifetime, he spoke defiantly for the freedom of his people and acted as a conscience to politicians like Abraham Lincoln. He treasured his own autonomy; as he said, “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”
At time when most white Americans thought it made sense for a man to control the body of another person (both women and people of color), Douglass asserted his own command over his own body. In a powerful letter to his former slave-owner, Douglass reminded him what was done to his body. “You well know that I wear stripes on my back inflicted by your direction; and that you, while we were brothers in the same church, caused this right hand, with which I am now penning this letter, to be closely tied to my left, and my person dragged at the pistol's mouth, fifteen miles, from the Bay side to Easton to be sold like a beast in the market, for the alleged crime of intending to escape from your possession.” Douglass throughout the letter made clear the evils of slavery and asserted his own autonomy over his own body and the right of all people to have control over their own person too. He ended it, “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.”
We’ve learned in this country all the harm that comes from denying people autonomy over their own bodies. People need to be able to know, “This is my body.”
And yet there is in our country a movement to restrict the ability of women to control their own body, to decide for themselves reproductive questions.
The costs of trying to control another’s body add up. A few years ago, the then governor of Indiana Mike Pence signed a law defunding Planned Parenthood clinics in his state. No state money. He celebrated this as a victory against abortion.
The loss of funding closed 5 clinics in the state of Indiana. None of them provided abortions. But they did provide health screening, HIV testing, and other reproductive and women’s health services.
In the year after the clinics closed, a health crisis developed in Scott County. HIV outbreak. The rural county witnessed the largest HIV outbreak per capita since the intensity of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Within a few months, 1% of population of Scott County became HIV+.
The clinic which would have caught this outbreak at its first emergence had been closed by Mike Pence’s attempt to limit women’s reproductive choices. When we start controlling the bodies of other people, our whole society gets damaged.
Some of those opposed to abortion articulate what they call a “consistent ethic of life.” This ethic then brings together opposition to abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia.
A commitment to bodily autonomy leads me to embrace a different kind of consistent ethic. I’d call it a consistent ethic of freedom. For I believe people ought to be free over their own bodies - women free to make their own reproductive choices, people free to choose their sexual and gender expression. I even see our contemporary struggles about race under this rubric, for what is white supremacy but another effort to continue the degradations of slavery under another name? And what is the Black Lives Matter movement but an effort to say like Frederick Douglass, “This is my body.”?
As a child, I learned to keep the sacred and profane separate: don’t drop the wafer; keep the holy apart from the body. But now that I’m an adult, I’ve put aside this way of thinking. Because I follow a messiah who said, “This is my body.” A messiah who embraced an embodied spirituality. A messiah who paid attention to the hungry, hurting, hoping bodies around him.
This embodied spirituality teaches me that every person ought to have autonomy over their own body, each woman able to make her own reproductive choices. To be able to say, “This is my body.”
Alleluia and Amen.