Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Let's Talk About Love

"Let's Talk About Love"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

February 3, 2019

Amos 5:6-15; Luke 4:14-30

Let’s Talk “Love. Love is what brings us together today.”
That’s a paraphrase from the climactic wedding scene in a great love story – first a novel and then a film – called “The Princess Bride.” It’s a story within a story. In the framing story, a seemingly gruff grandfather reads a favorite book to his grandson who is sick and home from school for a few days. The book he reads, The Princess Bride, is about the most beautiful woman in the world – Buttercup, the pig-keeper who loves her – Westly, and the evil prince who wants to possess her. Of course, the grandson is disgusted by the mushy parts – the kissing and the rapt adoration of the main characters for one another. There is, wrapped up in the story, perhaps every type of love imaginable: romantic, filial, comradely, lustful, chaste, long-suffering…. What’s often overlooked is the love of the grandfather and grandson for one another. The story is about the interrelatedness of love, and perhaps that all love flows from a common source.
I reposted a cartoon on our church Facebook page this week. Jesus is speaking to some pharisees and says, “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what love means, and I use love to determine what scripture means.” It’s especially relevant to the controversy that will be addressed at the Special Called General Conference of the United Methodist Church later this month. From my point of view, the progressive church understands both love and scripture from the same place as Jesus does in this cartoon.
Nonetheless, let’s talk about love from the perspective of biblical language. There are at least four Greek words that are translated into the English word “love.” Two are not found in the Protestant canon of the Bible: eros and storge. Eros, of course, is where we get the term erotic. It is sensual and controlling. This is the passionate love that desires the other for itself. Eros can also transcend the sensory world. Plato attributes creative inspiration to eros, and for Aristotle eros has or is a cosmic force of attraction that maintains orderly movement.
Storge is familial. It is relational, obligatory, nurturing, and affectionate.
The two words for love that are found in the Bible are filia and agaph. Philia comes from the word for fond – it implies compatibility, consensuality, and equity. It is the love between friends and equals – its power is to equalize a relationship because each member is in the relationship by choice. It appears only eight times in the bible, and only once in the Greek Testament. James 4:4 implies that one cannot be a friend of the world and of God – a choice must be made. Of course, it’s important to qualify what is meant by the world in this case. It is the world of hierarchy and empire – of accusation, greed, privilege, violence, and injustice.
Agaph is the word that is most often used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures – the Bible that Jesus would have known. In its pre-biblical usage, it is cold and colorless. It could be translated into English as preference – not as “I love,” but as “I prefer.” Jesus transforms the meaning of agape, quoting the central ethos of Judaism – love God, love neighbor, do good unto others as you would have them do unto you – in a “startlingly exclusive and unconditional way.
Love of God means total commitment and total trust…. Love of neighbor accompanies love of God. This is no abstract love of humanity…. It transcends any restriction to compatriots. The neighbor is [simply] the person close at hand who [responds] in a neighborly way to the one in need…. [For Jesus,] Love of neighbor definitely includes love of enemies. This love is the demand of a new age pointing to grace and applying to [his] “hearers.” It is the love of God’s new people which they show not merely to one another, but even to those who persecute them. It is thus totally sacrificial. The martyr [– Greek for witness –] becomes an intercessor for the hostile world…. Jesus makes this demand with full realism but with full seriousness.[i]
Words are important and powerful. It’s important to sort them out carefully. And Love is perhaps the most powerful word we know. The love chapter of First Corinthians is among the top ten texts of our faith. It ranks right up there with Psalm 23 – both of which are widely cherished and known in part because of their use in both weddings and funerals. I would argue that the Psalm is more appropriate at a wedding and Corinthians at a memorial. After all, upon entering into marriage, we cannot be sure of what valleys or banquets we will experience. And as we remember on the life of a beloved one, we are moved to reflect on the love that has graced a life. Corinthians at a wedding is not inappropriate – agape love is never inappropriate – it should infuse and undergird all our relationships. But if we only hear it in relation to marriage it is robbed of its power and importance in our relationship with the God of all whom we have definitively come to know in Jesus Christ.
I’m not at all interested in creating another checklist against which we can measure our fulfillment of God’s expectations for us as conveyed by Jesus and, in the of Corinthians, interpreted by Paul. That would be like the pharisees. But Paul’s poetic reflection practically begs to be understood in that way.
Are we patient?
Are we kind?
Are we jealous?
Do we put on airs?
Are we snobbish?
Are we rude or self-seeking?
Are we prone to anger?
Do we brood over injuries?
Do we rejoice in what is wrong?
Or do we rejoice in the truth?
Is there a limit to our forbearance, to our trust, our hope, our power to endure?
Each one of these questions is deserving of in-depth investigation and contemplation. What is kindness, anyway? Is rejoicing in the truth we have come to know a form of brutality against those whose experience is different that our own? Paul proceeds to point out that God lets us off the hook, so to speak – or maybe down from the cross. Of course, we cannot live up to this impossible standard. Certainly not as individuals. Probably not even as narrowly defined or constituted communities such as our congregation. We can’t even see clearly now. The promise, though, is that perfection – which is knowing fully and being fully known – will come. And, in the end, it all comes down to love. Not a saccharine or sappy love. Not a love of convenience or preference, but a love that is work, and that calls upon us in ways that are at odds with hierarchy and empire. It is a love to which we can turn even when faith and hope are lost. I am certain that you each have an idea of what this love is that Paul says is greater than faith or hope. I’d like to give you a few minutes now to reflect and jot down your thoughts on your pink slip. Don’t worry, nobody is getting fired with these pink slips. Instead I hope your hearts are strangely warmed! If you wish, you may return them in the offering basket, and I will share some of them with the rest of the congregation in the coming weeks.
The poet artist Jan Richardson writes this about the love chapter of Paul.
“Loving is always risky, because we cannot enter into it without being changed. Altered. Transformed. In the face of this, we might well ask, Do I really want this? Do we really desire to be so undone?
“Loving is never just about opening our heart. It is about being willing to have our heart become larger as we make room for people and stories and experiences we never imagined holding. It is about being willing to have our heart become deeper as we move beyond the surface layers of our assumptions, prejudices, and habits in order to truly see and receive what—and who—is before us. It is about being willing to have our heart continually shattered and remade as we take in not only the brokenness of the world but also the beauty of it, the astounding wonder that will not allow us to remain the same.”[ii]
Beloved, I hope and pray that love breaks you open, astounds you, and continues to change, alter, and transform you.

[i] Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Geoffrey W. Bromley, trans. and abr., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 8.
[ii] Jan Richardson, citation not found.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Releasing the Captives

The above image is entitled "Human Trafficking

"Releasing the Captives"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

January 27, 2019

Amos 5:6-15; Luke 4:14-30

I spent most of the last week in Atlanta where they are furiously preparing for the high holy day of American secular religion next weekend: Superbowl LIII. As I sat in what is claimed to be the busiest airport in the world yesterday awaiting my return flight to Seattle, a recorded announcement played about every twenty minutes: “The City of Atlanta is committed to stopping the spread of human trafficking. See something, say something. Call 911.” Next Sunday will not only be the culmination of billions of dollars of investment in facilities, players, training, coaching, and advertising, it will also be the single biggest day in the year for the oldest and still fastest growing industry on the planet – human trafficking – in this case in the form of sex trafficking – primarily of girls aged 12-14 – often refugees from violence torn or poverty stricken nations. The very real issues of global migration, and the imaginary crisis at our borders, have overshadowed the continuing, insidious, and evil practices of human trafficking.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery. Victims of human trafficking are subject to force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor. Victims are usually young children, teenagers, sometimes men, but mostly women and girls. “It is appalling that in the twenty-first century hundreds of thousands of women, children, and men made vulnerable by civil conflict, dire economic circumstances, natural disasters, or just their own desire for a better life, are trafficked and exploited for the purposes of sex or forced labor,” says former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “The deprivation of a human being's basic right to freedom is an affront to the ideals of liberty and human dignity cherished by people around the world.”
It is hard work to keep our eyes open for information about human trafficking. This heinous practice benefits from secrecy and subterfuge. It relies on our incredulity that even now, a half-century after the civil rights movement, human slavery could be rampant and commonplace. It’s hard to keep our focus. Our gaze is easily averted.
I am reluctant to burden you with statistics, because they invite us into a state of denial: how could that possibly be? But, here is part of what I have learned:
· There are more than 27 million slaves in the world today in sex and labor slavery[i] – more than four times the population of Washington.
· Globally 1 million children, as young as the age of six, are new victims of forced prostitution every year.[ii]
· 600,000-800,000 victims annually are trafficked across international borders.[iii]
· Human trafficking is the second most lucrative criminal industry in the world at rate of $12-$60 billion dollars annually.[iv]
· Seattle is the fourth highest destination of international human trafficking in the United States, primarily from Asia and Southeast Asia.[v]
·  In the U.S., 200,000 women and children are at high risk of forced prostitution.[vi]
I can tell you, I’d like to look the other way. But even though I believe the statistics, when I look around me, I don’t see much evidence. The perpetrators are highly skilled and well organized. I’m embarrassed to say that even as I was in the airport contemplating this sermon for today, I was not looking around me to see if it could be happening in my very presence. Nor have I ever considered before what a perfect place this island is to disguise the operations of human trafficking. People come and go in the privacy of their cars and live at the end of long forested driveways.
It brings new urgency and gravity to the Gospel text: Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? I can hear the echo of the prophets saying: Did you really look? Did you do all in your power to bring the evil to light? Did you partner with the king, or in our case the legislatures and executives and courts? There is certainly trouble. Is there any good news?
The conviction of our faith is that Jesus Christ is the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice. He tells the synagogue that the good news is fulfilled in their common presence. Jesus is present whenever love and justice are embodied. The desire to deliver and heal characterizes God’s interaction with humanity; Jesus’ mandate was all about reaching the poor, the deceived, and the enslaved.
“The Spirit of God is upon me:
         because the Most High has anointed me
         to bring Good News to those who are poor.
         God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
         recovery of sight to those who are blind,
         and release to those in prison –
         to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”

When we think about human trafficking, the juxtaposition of captives, the blind, and the oppressed is particularly compelling. We are often blind to the plight of the captive oppressed. However this is not a matter for guilt, but rather one for action. Jesus proclaimed that he intended to deliver and heal not the insiders, but the outsiders – the widow and the orphan, the outcast and the stranger. The gospel text is pretty outrageous. Those who do not see Christ in the face of the hungry, the thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, or bound, will experience eternal punishment. The victim of human trafficking is all of these. In the first century, slavery was a fact of life, an ordinary aspect of society and business, and still it was to the slave that Jesus reached out and with whom he identified. So strong is God’s compassion for the used and abused that Jesus chooses to identify with them completely. Today, Jesus is in a container ship, on her way to what was supposed to be the way to provide a better life for her family back home across the Pacific. Today, Jesus is being transported with other field laborers in the back of crowded panel truck, following the crops up and down the Interstate 5 corridor. Today Jesus wants us to see him wherever we look, and to respond with clothing, water, healing, consolation, liberation, safe harbor, and welcome. The good news is this: Jesus desperately wants us to be his sheep, not the goats. It is for us to see him where he is – and to respond.
How should we respond to the issue of human trafficking? The way of Jesus is to take the issue as seriously as God takes it. What grieves God should also grieve us – and cause us to be different. The prophet Amos tells us: For thus says the LORD: Seek me and live; seek the LORD and live. We must be ready to change, and to let God reset our agendas.
Amos tells us: Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious. We must be different in our attitudes: not allowing prejudice, arrogance, or selfishness to creep into our speech and actions.
Amos continues: Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of hosts: In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; in all the vineyards there shall be wailing. We must be ready to let God’s compassion move us to deep, heart-felt prayer.
Amos concludes: Thus says the Lord, I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We are called upon to do whatever it takes, with our time, energy, and finances, to bring about love and justice for those who need it. This is the worship that God desires.
How should we react toward the issue of human trafficking?
·               Educate ourselves and others. The Website Seattle Against Slavery is an excellent resource.
·               Find out whether your pension and investment funds are being invested in companies profiting from human trafficking. If so, divest! www.slaveryfootprint.org
·               Support DOVE and VYFS, and notice the circumstances of the potentially vulnerable around you. See something, say something.
A couple of years ago a headline on a favorite blogsite piqued my interest. The title stated:  Oldest Known Hebrew Script, Recently Deciphered, Links Worship and Justice.[vii] The discovery, words written on a fragment of pottery, was dated to around the 10th century BCE – the supposed time of King David. It is not known if it is a fragment of scripture, but it clearly describes concern and care for the slave, the widow, the orphan, and the poor, as acts of worship.
You shall not do it, but worship the Lord.
Consider the slave and the widow.
Consider the orphan and the stranger.
Plead for the infant. Plead for the poor and the widow.
Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king.
Protect the poor and the slave; support the stranger.
What is our true worship? In our time there is no question. Prayer and action must be indistinguishable. Each generous gift must be a prayer. Each prayer must be offered up in the form of money and awareness so that when confronted with the reality of modern day slavery, we are prepared to respond – to join together hearts and hands to rebuild ruined lives; to raise up the foundations of many generations; to be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
When did we see you, Jesus?

[i] National Geographic and United Nations
[iii] U.S. State Department
[iv] Seattle Against Slavery
[v] Seattle Against Slavery
[vi] Pennsylvania University
[vii] Sojourners, http://blog.sojo.net/2010/01/08/oldest-known-hebrew-script-recently-deciphered-links-worship-and-justice/