Tuesday, June 18, 2019

to Boldly Go

Photo entitled The Fire Dove. 

"to Boldly Go"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 16, 2019 -- (Postponed) Pentecost 

Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17

Do you remember reading or seeing The Da Vinci Code? In the opening sequence of the film version, an old man is being pursued by a fanatical killer through the Louvre Galleries in Paris. The old man knows something important – a secret – some secret knowledge that he must convey, even as he protects it, from his pursuer. It is his most urgent task and it has been the motivating purpose of his life. In his dying moments he leaves clues, in code, to be – hopefully – discovered later by those who were meant to receive them. A secret message – meant only for a few – to be fiercely protected – even unto death. The Da Vinci Code makes a claim that the old man’s secret is the truth about Christianity. I contend that nothing could be further from the truth. The truth of our faith is a bold message – meant for all – to be freely given – even into new life.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, his colleagues, and his followers advocated the proclamation of simple truths for simple people. Eyewitness accounts of Wesley’s preaching indicate that he was not a particularly dynamic speaker – but that he was on fire with the Holy Spirit – that the modesty of his presentation revealed the depth of the truth that he spoke. Today you might wonder about that if you read the florid prose of his eighteenth-century English. But the advice is good. So today let us speak simply and boldly.
Today we celebrate a postponed Pentecost – an apt metaphor, perhaps, for our proclivity to put off the perplexing aspects of what we profess. The Pentecost reading from Acts is dramatic and full of special effects. In fact, the commotion caused by the arrival of the Holy Spirit is so overwhelming that even today, nearly two thousand years later, we tend to overlook both what was happening before and what happened after the great rush of wind and fire. Before Pentecost, most of the resurrection occurrences take place in secret behind closed doors. This has less to do with the teleportive properties of the resurrection body than with the locked-door mentality of the disciples. In the story immediately preceding Pentecost, there are 120 disciples packed into one small dark room. They are gathered once again after the Easter event, but they're still lying low, skulking about, looking over their shoulders, and timidly whispering the good news. They have good reason to be afraid. That’s how the authorities want them.
Remember that when Peter denies Jesus and slinks off, he's playing out the political script that the authorities have written. The authorities’ logic is very clear. Caiaphas says that it would be better for one man to die than for this thing to get out of hand and bring the Roman heel down upon them all. There is a fragile framework, a tenuous political arrangement between the temple establishment and the occupying empire that they can't afford to upset. They do away with Jesus in order to crush a budding movement. Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will run for cover. The question is this: Will the movement be ruled by fear? Will the followers be contained and confined? Rendered timid and silent? Pentecost comes with a bold answer: “No.”
The story in Acts 2 begins with many faithful Jews of the great diaspora gathered in Jerusalem – some of them happen to be followers of Jesus. These 21 verses could be lifted out of their context in the Acts, and unless you already knew, you could not tell that it is a pivotal moment in the origins of Christianity. These are Jews gathered from the reaches of the empire for one of the great Jewish pilgrimage festivals. They have gathered to speak about God’s deeds of power. The disciples take this story down to earth; they go to the people. To the authorities it must appear as political madness, an acute and, they hope, isolated case of sanctified anarchy. Some people say they have had too much to drink. How else can you explain their reckless courage? After what's been done to Jesus, you'd have to be either crazy or drunk to be shouting his name in the streets. Before Pentecost the disciples have only seen Jesus; now they experience the concrete and practical freedom of the resurrection – of Jesus having overcome the ingrained system of violence, victimization, and vindication. No political authority any place or any time can shut them down. This Pentecost means speaking without confusion. Beginning with Pentecost the disciples speak clearly and are understood. These are just plain Galileans. There isn't a seminary degree among them. They speak rough, down-to-earth, fisherman's-wharf Aramaic. But on Pentecost they speak truth with bold and eloquent simplicity.
The miracle of Pentecost is not so much that the message was suddenly spoken and understood in so many languages, but that there is one story that is greater than our differences – that is the story of God’s power, Jesus’ presence, and Spirit’s promptings, before, between, and beyond our small spheres of experience and influence. John Wesley, said in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit,”
“But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”[i]
The promise of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels is almost invariably associated with conflict, controversy, and condemnation — and notably with the ability to speak coherently in court or before the thrones of power. For instance in Luke, the Gospel by the author of Acts, Jesus teaches this to the thousands who gather to learn from and follow him: “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say”
Later in his Pentecost sermon, Peter says, “Let me speak boldly to you...” The Greek word translated as boldly appears only once in the synoptic Gospels, but then suddenly flourishes in Acts from the day of Pentecost on. Often translated as “boldness,” or “speaking openly,” it is a mini-Pentecost packed into one word. The term is aptly borrowed from the political vocabulary of the Greek city-states. Originally it signified the right of the full citizen to speak fully and freely in the public assembly. It means literally “the freedom to say all.”
All this talk about boldness reminds me of one of my favorite television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. One of the cool connections to Pentecost is that wherever they go, the locals understand their speech and they understand the locals. Do you remember the opening voice-over?
“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise; its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Well, isn’t this just about like the mission of the church? In the years I have been blessed with the privilege to teach confirmation class, I’ve tried to stress how much we yearn for our young people to become full members of the church, but that it must be their own free decision to do so. They often ask, “Well, what if I want to be part of a different church someday?” In response I use the metaphor of a ship. “The church is like a ship where we know each other, and we are going somewhere together. Anyone is free to join our voyage. We have work to do that is eternal work – lives to live that are eternal too. We want you to be on this journey with us as we travel from port to port, serving the needs of whomever we find there, and relying on their skills and resources on our journey. Those on board the ship are like those on shore. Both have needs and gifts. There are other ships too, that are committed to serving the needs of both ship and shore.”
“Well,” a student wants to know, “what if I just start my own church?” (clear throat) … sometimes I think the purpose of confirmation preparation is to test my own faith. I extend the metaphor. “We don’t want you to drown, and building a ship is a very big task. No one can do it alone, and in the meantime, there may be sharks in the water.”
In the Star Trek fictional universe, the Prime Directive is the overriding guiding principle. It dictates that there will be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society, chiefly meaning that no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races. The Gospel lesson today, the good news, is that our prime directive is to love one another, to give our lives for one another, and to proclaim our confirming evidence of this good news as we are empowered by the companion that Jesus sent on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit. We are not to hide timidly behind conformance, convention, and compromise. We are not to harbor quietly a secret message – meant only for a few – to be fiercely protected – even unto death. Instead, we are to proclaim our bold message – meant for all – to be freely given – even into new life.
Love one another.
Serve one another as friends.
Claim the name Jesus.
Wear it boldly.
Now, beloved, let us join in our most urgent task and the motivating purpose of our life:
Together let us love God.
Together let us love one another.
Together let us give our lives for one another.
Together let us proclaim our confirming witness of the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of shalom as we live into that good news, seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly – not timidly but boldly – with our God.
Make it so.

[i] John Wesley, “The Catholic Spirit” http://www.umaffirm.org/cornet/catholic.html

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

What Love Is This? Liberation

This picture is of the Bussa Emancipation Statue. The Emancipation Statue is a public sculpture symbolising the "breaking of the chains" of slavery at Emancipation. It is located in Barbados. Many Barbadians refer to the statue as Bussa, the name of a slave who helped inspire a revolt against slavery in Barbados in 1816, though the statue is not actually sculpted to be Bussa. The statue, made of bronze, was created in 1985 by Bajan sculptor Karl Broodhagen 169 years after the rebellion. You can continue to read more about the statue here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bussa_Emancipation_Statue.

"What Is This Love? Liberation."

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 2, 2019 -- Seventh Sunday in Eastertide

Acts 16:16-34; John 17:6-7, 20-26

Liberty seems to be a god in our time and place – in the America of the twenty-first century. Of course, it didn’t start in our lifetimes. “Live free or die” was adopted as the state motto of New Hampshire – the more conservative and fiercely independence-minded of the New England states – way back in 1945. It was quoted from the 1809 letter of John Stark, a Revolutionary War general, who in turn was inspired by Patrick Henry’s speech to the second Virginia congress in 1775, which included the cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” The general idea was that even death is preferable to enslavement. It’s ironic, then, that the principles of liberty did not extend to the slaves held by these and other patriots. Liberty and bondage seem to live side by side in our history. It is liberty that we worship, a god with a small ‘g’ – and bondage of some form or another has even been defended as a necessary sacrifice to the god “liberty.”
Today’s text from Acts is filled with contrasts between liberty and bondage. A slave woman with a “snake spirit” – a reference to the Delphic oracle – attests freely that Paul and Silas are also slaves. The slave with the gift of divination is doubly enslaved – she is both possessed by the snake spirit and a possession of her masters – and yet she seems to be at liberty to follow Paul and Silas around town, much to their annoyance. Paul unbinds her from the snake spirit, but doesn’t seem too worried about her status as a slave, nor the fact that her liberty may mean that she is cast aside by her masters, or worse, demoted to more menial and captive servitude. All citizens of the empire, as well as residents of territories occupied by the empire, are subjects of their “master” – or “lord” – in Rome – the emperor. This is where we first learn of Paul’s protected status as a citizen, and yet it does not free him from the charges of sedition against the state – evoking the same grounds on which Paul’s master – his “Lord” – Jesus – was bound, tried, and executed.
At precisely the bleakest moment – the darkest and most captive and vulnerable circumstance – the tables are turned once again. Released from their physical bondage in the innermost cell by the earthquake – again strikingly parallel to the earthquake in the innermost chamber of the temple at the moment of Jesus’ liberating death – Paul and Silas are suddenly the masters of the jailer’s fate. Despite the liberty that presents itself, the disciples, still in their place of captivity, choose to “liberate” the jailer from death by his own hand. In response, the jailer tends to their wounds like the Samaritan had done for the traveler left for dead on the side of the road. Who is captive and who is free? And what must each do for salvation? In each case in this narrative, as far as we know, those who were captive remain in their captive state despite being “saved,” delivered, unencumbered, or liberated. Salvation, then, in this context – the context of the good news as it was first shared beyond the boundaries of Judaism – does not mean a change in the particularities of captivity, but a redemption of the particularities of slavery – it means a liberation of the whole person and restoration of the wholeness of the community. I am reminded of the clarity with Richard Rohr conveys the alternative to the punitive, substitutionary paradigm of salvation:
“Jesus didn’t come as a remedy for sin – as if God would need blood before God could love what God created. The idea that God, who is love, would demand the sacrifice of [God's] beloved [Child] in order to be able to love what God created is the conundrum that reveals how unsatisfying that quid pro quo logic really is.
“... Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing: God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. This sets everything on an utterly positive foundation. Rather than being an ogre, God is Love. Rather than being sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are inherently and forever loved by God, no matter what we do or don’t do.”[i]
During the twentieth century, as the conditions of oppression and corruption blossomed in Latin America, a new movement in Christian theology with deep roots in the Torah, the Prophets, the Wisdom Literature, and the Gospel also blossomed – though in the case of this movement, called Liberation Theology, it was also watered by labor movements, emancipation movements, suffrage movements, and critical social analysis. Liberation theology observed God’s preferential option for the poor and sought to bring liberation by empowering the poor to organize and lead. The idea was not to escape the condition of poverty to climb the ladder of material success. Leaders in the base Christian communities stayed in their circumstances of captivity, like Paul and Silas remained in the innermost cell, in order to bring the light of Christ – even to the jailer.
Richard Rohr continues:
“Liberation theology focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called ‘structural sin’ and ‘institutional evil’). It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own naughty behaviors, which many people identify as the only meaning of sin. In our individualistic society, structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large companies, churches, and governments get away with and are even applauded for [violence], greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. The capital sins are rewarded at the corporate level but shamed at the individual level. This is our conflicted Christian morality!
“Instead of legitimating the status quo, liberation theology tries to read history and the Bible not from the side of the powerful, but from the side of the pain. Its beginning point is not sin management, but ‘Where is the suffering?’
“The world tends to define poverty and riches simply in terms of economics. But poverty has many faces – weakness, dependence, and many forms of humiliation. Essentially, poverty is a lack of means to accomplish what one desires or needs, be it lack of money, relationships, influence, power, intellectual ability, physical strength, freedom, or dignity.
“God hears the cry of the poor. And we, created in God’s image and likeness, must do the same to be like God.”[ii]
Beloved, the work of resurrection love is liberation by disentangling us from restrictive bondage and captivity, imposed upon us through the sin of others, systems of sin, as well as our own self-imposed sin – estrangement from the good that God intends and declares for us. To borrow again from Rohr, the work of resurrection love “is to keep people free for God.”[iii]
“We get trapped in chains of guilt and low self-esteem, focusing on our imperfect church attendance and inability to live up to the law’s standard. As if the goal of religion is “attendance” at an occasional ritual instead of constant participation in an Eternal Mystery! Prophets turn our ideas of success and belonging on their head, emphasizing God’s unconditional and unmerited love in response to our shortcomings. God is always breaking the approved “rules of God” by forgiving sinners, choosing the outsider or the weak, showing up in secular places.
“Our job is to love others the way God has loved us. In [our lives, we]’ve experienced God’s unearned love again and again. God has persistently broken the rules to love [us] at the level [we] needed, could receive, and [were] able to understand throughout [our lives]. The magnanimous nature of divine love keeps liberating [us] at deeper levels where [we’re] still entrapped.”[iv]
Liberty may often be worshipped as a god, and served in the hope that we will become masters – Lords of all we survey. Instead, we know God to be the Lord of love, the Master of compassion, the One who reaches into our pain and plants a new seed – a seed of resurrection love – a love that trusts in hope – a love built on a foundation of mutuality – a resurrection love of liberation. In the resurrection love of Jesus, the slave woman becomes the prophetic voice, the jailer becomes the good Samaritan, and the Apostles choose to remain enslaved to the God whose love takes us, shakes us, and unshackles us in order to redeem our brokenness for the sake of liberation.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

What Love Is This? Listening

"What Is This Love? Listening."

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

May 26, 2019 -- Sixth Sunday in Eastertide

First Kings 19:1-16; Acts 16:9-15

I believe we all have had this experience – many of us more than once, some of us often, maybe recently: a friend, or loved one, or even a mere acquaintance, or even a stranger, is grieving. They may be grieving a literal death – the conclusion of a person’s earthly, bodily life. Or they may be grieving a more metaphorical death – the loss of a relationship, a job, their health, a significant asset, their sense of innocence or hope or faith or love. We often feel stuck in this situation – not sure what to do, how to help, what to say. Most of us have also been in the position of the one who mourns. Often that means we are not processing the world around us very well – we are not listening to what people are saying, or we may have a diminished capacity to appreciate the concerns of others. We may not know what to say when someone says, “How can I help?”
Here are few things not to say to the grieving as suggested by a very helpful article I wish I’d been shown when I was in seminary.
“‘I know how you feel.’ No, actually, you don’t know how I feel. Even if you’ve lost your dad, you didn’t lose my dad.
“‘God is in control.’ [It’s been said] that you should never utter something about God that you can’t say while standing before the gates of Auschwitz. [Let’s take] that even further, never utter something about God that you can’t say to parents who have lost a child. Can God bring good out of evil? Yes. Absolutely. But that is a very different thing than saying that God is controlling evil and causing it to happen. It’s a very different thing than saying that God has a reason [to take] kids from their parents.
“‘He’s in a better place.’ First of all, [we] don’t know this. The eternal condition of any human being is not for [us] to know with any kind of [certainty]. … even if we have a lot of confidence that someone is in eternal bliss, the fact is, God created us to be earth dwellers. Made from the dust of the ground, humanity is an earth-bound, earth-loving creature. Our best place, the place for which we were created is right here. What we mean by “a better place” is that these people are in the presence of God and are no longer suffering. … But …, in biblical theology, heaven and earth are together and God is here in this place.
“‘God just wanted another angel.’ Not only is this statement theologically wrong (people don’t turn into angels when they die; [we are permanently human, angels are a separate, and perhaps temporary, creation]), but the more dangerous theological assumption in this comment is that God is somehow involved in the taking of a child from parents.
“‘You have to be strong for X….’ This gets said too much to grieving people. It places the burden of “bucking up” and pretending everything’s okay on a person precisely at the time when nothing is okay.
“‘God never gives us more than we can handle.’ How do [we] know God never gives us more than we can handle? Did [we] read that in Scripture somewhere? Or did [we] see it on a bumper sticker? God does not “give” tragedy to people. God does not cause evil. A god who causes evil (for testing or because another angel [is needed]) is an evil god. … God is always allowing people to find themselves in situations that are bigger than they can handle. That’s the nature of learning to trust God and understand God’s loving care for us – it’s all bound up in the idea that when we are out of control, God is still sovereign and still [crafting] the waves and the darkness and death into something, not that we can control, but something that can be redeemed.
“‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ This question often comes from a good place. Unlike many of the comments and clichés above, this question at least focuses on the needs of the grieving person instead of the discomfort of the person voicing the trite comments. Nevertheless, … this question … isn't specific enough. In the end, most of the silly things we say to grieving people could be avoided if we simply keep our mouths shut. Silence is better than stupidity…. In some of these sayings, we mean well, but the sayings don’t effectively communicate our concern. In others of these, we’re not really concerned about the grieving person, we’re concerned with our own discomfort. The grieving person doesn’t need you to solve anything. A hug will do just fine. If Jesus is right and God blesses those who mourn, then the last thing we need to do is be a curse to them by saying things that are more hurtful than helpful.” [i]
In a word, what can you do when someone is grieving?
Listening is one of the most profound forms of love.
There must have been a lot of listening in Philippi when Paul and his entourage found themselves there on the Sabbath, seeking a place to worship. We know from the text that Lydia was willing to simply listen. She is described as σεβομνη τν θεν – a worshipper or reverer of God – the root word means to cower. The implication is that she believed in the one God, perhaps as understood by the Jews, but without being a part of a synagogue. She had gathered with other women by the river to worship – a place of beauty, perhaps, and calm – but not a synagogue. Perhaps she knew someone from the diaspora of the Hebrew people, but she was not welcome in their time or place of worship. Remember, this became Paul’s great innovation – to proclaim the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of shalom for gentiles as well as Jews. And so, for whatever reason, Lydia was listening. But Paul and his cohort must have been listening, too, in order to discern the place where they also might worship – not being a part of a local synagogue. Beginning with this episode, Paul often sought out the places where the locals gathered. The relationship began with deep listening, required deep listening, and resulted in deep listening to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these new followers of the way of Jesus – already believers in the singular goodness and power of God.
There are many ways this resurrection love of listening flows in and through creation. On Tuesday, Carol Ellis, and Mary and I attended a screening of the film “Paper Tigers” co-sponsored by VYFS and VARSA. These organizations seek to introduce a new perspective and set of tools to organizations on Vashon reflecting a better understanding of how adversely humans are affected by trauma. “Paper Tigers documents the lives of students at Walla Walla’s Lincoln High School, an alternative school that specializes in educating traumatized youth. It examines the inspiring promise of ‘Trauma Informed Communities’ – a movement that is showing great promise in healing youth who struggle with the dark legacy of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Exposure to chronic and adverse stress (and the altered brain function that results) leaves a child in a fruitless search for comfort and escape from a brain and body that is permanently stuck in flight or fight. That comfort comes in the form of drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sex, food, and more.
“Every year, millions of unloved and traumatized youth enter adulthood with damaged brains and hearts. They are highly predisposed to die from self-destructive behaviors, and highly likely to continue the cycle of abuse. Even those who do not engage in self destructive behaviors are highly predisposed to develop cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and immune disorders. The impact of unloved and traumatized children on society is profound and widespread. 85% of prison inmates were traumatized as youth. 27% of hospital visits can be traced to causes linked to childhood trauma. Hurt kids grow up to hurt people. The generational cycles of trauma and abuse are as stubborn as they are tragic. But there is hope.” [ii]
The film informs us that the single biggest factor in overcoming the trauma of adverse childhood experiences is a caring, stable adult. And that care is expressed not by fixing, but by listening. Beloved, as resurrection people, who believe that God is actively seeking to restore creation to its fullest thriving and goodness, perhaps the most faithful thing we can do – that we are all fully capable of doing – is to love by listening. In the coming months we will have the opportunity to be trained in an approach to community organizing based primarily in engaged listening. It entails seeking out relationships with new people simply for the purpose of listening. One of my good friends and colleagues, Shalom Agtarap, will come to help us learn this thoughtful tool. Perhaps the most loving thing we can do as followers of Jesus is to listen. Some new understanding and direction may come from the listening. Maybe not. The purpose of this listening is humility and respect rather than some kind of gain. Listening is a gift of love. So, what if we became known in our community as the church who listens? That would be resurrection love – a love that trusts in hope – a love built on a foundation of relationship – a resurrection love of listening.

[i] Tom Fuerst, “10 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person” [https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/5552/10-things-you-should-never-say-to-a-grieving-person], May 17, 2019.
[ii] VARSA [https://varsanetwork.org/paper-tigers/], May 17, 2019.