Tuesday, December 11, 2018

How Can We Be Sure of This

Picture to the left entitled "Stations of the Cross" by artist Janet McKenzie depicts a pair, perhaps quite like the Mary and Joseph seeking refuge and relying on one another while finding it. 

"How Can We Be Sure of This"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

December 9, 2018

Luke 1:5-25; Luke 1:57-80

When Mary, to whom I am married, was pregnant with each of our children, I had a job as well – a kind of gestation. It was my job to research names that would be both meaningful and euphonious. It was a big job – a nine-month labor – and I loved it. With each of our children we said we would wait until we knew who they were before we settled on a name, and so each time we arrived at the hospital with a list of four or so first names and a few middle names and several combinations of each. After Fay, our youngest, was born, Mary gently informed me that each time she had known ahead of time which name it would be, but let me continue to believe that I had a part to play in it. I’m sure there are some parallels to Zechariah’s months of silence and Elizabeth’s final say – which Zechariah wisely endorsed. Had he not, perhaps his speech would not have returned.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is highly detailed for two characters who play no significant part in Luke’s narrative after the first chapter. But it is important enough that it is the first story Luke begins after explaining the purpose of the two-volume set – Luke/Acts – which is “to set it down in writing … esteemed lover of God, so that you may see how reliable the instruction was that you received.” The echoes of the story of Samuel – whose parents were barren and advanced in years, songs of praise on behalf of the poor of the land, a family home in the hill country, and the conception and birth of one who would proclaim the coming of an anointed leader who would lead the people in God’s way – these echoes are so many and so strong that many scholars believe the author of Luke invented the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth as the parents of John – giving him an impeccable heritage, descended from both priestly lines, and hailing from the hill-country origins of the Hebrew people. Luke is meant as a bridge of continuity in a chaotic time in the life of the people of Judea. And this opening story is meant to give credence to a messiah – an anointed one – who would overturn the enemy in ways that were unexpected and sharply divergent from the self-righteous or the powerful.

It’s been a lifetime of waiting for Elizabeth and Zechariah. In those days it was thought that any kind of physical malady was a sign that something in one’s life was not up to the standard of holiness or purity. In some ways, it is remarkable that Zechariah was even allowed to enter the holy of holies considering that he was childless in his advanced years. However, it was Elizabeth – the woman – who bore the shame of barrenness. It could be that Zechariah’s fellow priests arranged for him to get the short straw. It was supposedly an honor to enter the most holy place in all creation, but one that also carried some risk. The inner sanctum was filled with incense in part so that the priest who entered would not run the risk of coming face to face with God. That would surely lead to his death – and it was always a man who entered that place, and only once a year. The danger was so real that a rope would be tied around the ankle of the priest who entered there, in case he accidentally glimpsed the visage of the Most High. His body could then be drawn out without risk to anyone else. Still, Zechariah may have waited a lifetime for the opportunity to enter God’s intimate presence. And Elizabeth and Zechariah together had waited a lifetime for a sign that God is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

It had been more than a lifetime of waiting for the Covenant people. No individual can wait more than a lifetime. We each only have one lifetime. But as a people, the waiting can extend well beyond the horizon behind us, and the horizon before us may seem it will never come. It’s easy for us today in a culture that extols the virtues and blessings of individuality and individual achievement that all primal cultures and many highly developed cultures, understand individual identity primarily as an expression of a whole, rather than understanding the whole as an aggregate of individuals. The fortunes and losses of the covenant people hung upon the decisions of its leaders. And for centuries, by the time of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the leaders of the Hebrew people had been cheating on YHWH – flirting with neighboring powers and grinding the people of the land into greater and greater inequity. No wonder the people longed for a messiah who would overturn the tables of the merchants in the temple. The covenant people together had waited more than lifetime – for as long as their collective memory for a sign that God is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

We can understand the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah as a pattern in our own individual lives. Each of us strives to please God in all that we do – even knowing that it is not possible without God’s help, and perhaps that is exactly what God wants from each of us – to embrace our imperfection as a way for God to enter in to our separate lives. And we can understand the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah as a pattern in our life together as a congregation, a people, a movement of followers of Jesus. And together we strive to please God in all that we do – even knowing that it is not possible without God’s help, and perhaps that is exactly what God wants from us as a body of Christ – to embrace our imperfection as a way for God to enter in to our gathered lives.

I’ve been pondering the possibility that the silence imposed on Zechariah by the high messenger Gabriel – God’s Strength – is not a punishment. Instead, perhaps it is an opportunity – a blessing. The silence Gabriel gives is maybe the answer to Zechariah’s question, “How are we to know?” For Elizabeth and Zechariah, how were they to know, given their barren state, that God would act through them to bring about a new thing – an important thing. How were they to know that despite the appearance of some shortcoming that they would be exactly what God needed to advance the knowledge of unconditional love and expectation of justice? Gabriel’s answer seems to be, watch and see. Stop trying to explain it all. Take a pregnant pause and watch what happens. God is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

After another long wait, this time only nine months or so, Zechariah’s speech is freed from its captivity. And his first utterance appears to be a song. And not just any song, but a song first of praise on behalf of the poor of the land. It’s a song about what love looks like in public – a song of justice. And then a song of blessing to the child who will act as the prophetic bridge from past into present. It’s a song of what love looks like in private – a song of intimacy. The first part of the song is a thanksgiving for having been delivered from the hands of our enemies that we might serve God without fear, in holiness and justice, in God’s presence all our days. It’s clear who the enemies were in Elizabeth and Zechariah’s world. They were all too present. They were what today what we might call the one percent. They were the elite who lived off the labor and sacrifice of the common. John’s parents occupied a sort of middle ground in that equation. They were privileged to a degree, but not the elite. They were a lot like us. From a planetary perspective most of us here are highly privileged. At the same time, we do not call the shots. We are subjects of the empire.

But, maybe we’ve been wrestling with the wrong enemies. Or perhaps we have not been wrestling the enemies that are closest to us. Who are our enemies? Steve Garnaas-Holmes names them in his response to Zechariah’s song this week:
Our worst enemies are no one else,
but our own fear, greed and resentment,
our urge to be right and safe and powerful.
They soldier on, as if the war is not over.
But God has set us free
from the enemies of our wholeness,
enemies of life.
We are free to serve, to love, to risk
without fear.
We are free from the traps and tangles in our heads,
the tales we spin of what can't be.

Our fear, already safe on the other side,
still mumbles about impossibilities
while the bird flies through the bars,
the imaginary mountain.

Nothing but the lies in our heads prevents us now
from being the perfect vessel of the Beloved,
being fearlessly forgiving,
being the light in the darkness.
That is who we are now.
We are free.

How do we combat these enemies – the ones we carry inside? Zechariah’s song gives us a hint. How does God combat these enemies? With tender mercy; loving kindness; long suffering patience; generous hospitality; and deep-seated awareness that all is not right in the household we maintain. “How can we be sure?” Perhaps we never can be sure. Perhaps we can only wonder with silent watching, waiting, listening. This is not to suggest that we stop doing all the important things we are doing – but some of them may not be as important as we think – at least not according to God’s view. It is to suggest that we covet every quiet moment, treasure it, and squeeze from it a moment of intimacy with the abiding and demanding presence of God who is awaiting our attention and our silence. The vessel of the Beloved need not speak. Steal some time to be like Elizabeth and Zechariah this week and every week. Carry within yourself a message of hope and forgiveness waiting to be born, and listen deeply for God who is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

And All Shall Be Well

Picture above entitled "Asylum Holy Family" depicts a family, perhaps quite like the holy family seeking refuge and having to cross borders to find it. Just like Joseph and Mary, the parents imagined in this painting are hoping to protect their family and continue their narrative, paralleling the journey of many families in search of the same, today. 

"And All Shall Be Well"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

December 2, 2018

Jeremiah 33:1-16; Luke 21:25-36

It is my pastoral responsivity and our collective responsibility as followers of Jesus to reflect theologically on the tear-gassing of women and children asylum seekers at our southern border – especially as we await the coming of the Christ, who was made manifest to us in the child of an immigrant couple who sought asylum from a political tyrant in a neighboring land. Imagine how formative those early years were for Jesus. Imagine the stories his parents told of escaping the violent wrath of a man who feared any contender for the hearts of the people – whose reign was propped up by the manipulation of fear. A study[i] from Yale released this week highlights the role of fear in political affiliation. Fear is a deep motivator for reactionary and repressive perspectives and policies. Persons whose underlying relationship to the world is not motivated by fear tend to have more open and compassionate attitudes.
Now, I’m not saying we all need to be liberals. In fact, I’m missing many of the conservatives’ values these days. And the current administration is not the first to utilize violence at the border. But I must point out that again and again, the prophets and messengers of God, and Jesus in particular, introduced themselves with the admonition to “Fear not!” Do not be motivated by fear.
Jesus, who as we noted experienced from a young age quite a lot of calamity and crisis – after all, he was an undocumented immigrant – has been teaching in the temple. Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings come just moments after leaving the temple after having observed the widow giving sacrificially of herself. Mark and Luke agree on this timeline and many of the details – including an indictment of the easy giving of the rich from their abundance. Then as they leave the temple, the disciples comment on its splendor, and Jesus counters with a reminder of the vulnerability of the works of our hands. In fact, he says, it’s all about to come down. Certainly, it’s a cataclysmic prophecy. It’s hard for the disciples to imagine life without the centerpiece of their culture – the temple. Though corrupt, the temple represents safety, security, and a symbol of memorable and meaningful identity in a world in which the covenant and the lifestyle it demands seem increasingly irrelevant, impractical, and impotent. Just to think about its destruction is like contemplating the end of the world. Indeed, says Jesus, the world as the disciples knew it was about to explode. It will be, like they say in the comics, all hell breaking loose, especially for those who have luxuriated until now.
In the previous verses, Luke’s Jesus paints a picture of military occupation, martial law, and the prosecution of war crimes. Then in the text for today, the signs of change become global – nearly cosmic. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
The signs of change could not be missed. Jesus is saying that the signs of change that herald the coming of the Son of Man will be as unmistakable and powerful. But this also should be unmistakably good news – though we often miss that part of the message. Mark’s Gospel seems to anticipate our rush to get the low-down from Jesus on when this will all occur, with Jesus concluding the passage saying, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” Luke has moved that disclaimer to an earlier chapter about anxieties over earthly things and riches in heaven. I wonder, could a significant change in our practices of celebrating Christmas seem as cataclysmic as the destruction of the Temple?
The apocalyptic imagery in Luke’s Gospel is reminiscent of recently escalating so-called natural disasters: meteorological omens, distress in nations small and great, the roaring of earth and sea and waves. People fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. We don’t even know yet what change will be wrought in the aftermath of the fires in California or the earthquakes in Alaska. We seem to be bracketed between calamities here in the Pacific Northwest.
But the apocalyptic message is not about weather at all. The language of cataclysm is about expressing something so significant, so overwhelming, so real, that it cannot be described as normal experience. There have always been bad storms, and there always will be. No, the apocalyptic language is trying to describe the depth and exhilaration of the experience of living the realm of God, which will break in upon us like an earthquake or firestorm, uprooting what we thought was reliable, rendering the powerful and mighty as insignificant, and raising up the lowly.
Luke is clear about what’s wrong with us. We get bloated with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life,” and we overlook the signs of God’s presence. We may even interpret some of those signs as the end of the world…. But we ought to remain engaged with the world, saying, “How is God at work in this moment in history?” and seek God’s will not according to our own comfort or benefit, but rather on the flourishing and vitality of all who are created in God’s image. This can be a pretty frightening thing when the status quo ensures power and control for those who already wield power and control. It can be very subtle, but very real. And it really is the end of their world for those who may have to relinquish even a tiny bit of power or control. This is a theme of Luke that we will revisit time and again over the coming “Luke” year of the lectionary cycle. Luke turns expectations and rewards upside down.
Luke gives us two indications that despite the cataclysmic proportions of the changes to come, that we should not fear. First, the signs are like the new leaves on the fig tree – miraculous if you stop and think about it – signaling the summer, the most auspicious and fertile time of the year, a time of labor, yes, but also of rejoicing and plenty. The fig tree is a sign of both fruitfulness and faithfulness. It can be counted upon to provide luscious fruit and ample shade. And it can be counted upon year after year. Anyone who has had the experience of picking a ripe fig, warm from the sun, knows the power of this metaphor of God’s promise of unconditional love. The fig tree is also employed frequently by the prophets as a metaphor for distributive justice. God is known to be in the land when everyone has access to their own fig tree – the one they have planted and tended with God giving the growth. In the face of natural and man-made calamity, what is a fig tree? And yet it portends what is to come.
The other indicator that the cataclysmic change to come is not to be feared is the advice to stand up. Scholars say the first part of this chapter is about the devastation of the state and the cult, which by the time of Luke’s audience was old news. Luke’s Jesus says, “Before any of this, they’ll arrest you and persecute you…; bringing you before rulers and governors. And it will all be because of my name. This will be your opportunity to witness.” That does not really seem like good news for anyone but a zealot. So, in this latter part of the chapter, Jesus starts a pep-talk for those who have lost hope, for those who may feel that their only response is to let their “spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares.” He says, “When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near at hand.” Redemption in the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic is not so much about the salvation of the individual, but about taking those who have suffered and those who have been oppressed and restoring them to full living according to their Creator.
The Redeemer is the one who has released the captives from their slavery in Egypt – it’s about the restoration of abundant life and community to the whole people. And the root of the New Testament word we know as “redeem” means to loose, to unbind, to set free for the purpose for which it was intended. As Jesus returns to our lives, which I believe is an ongoing day by day process – it will feel like an earthquake or a firestorm at times, at other times like the unfurling of new leaves and the slow ripening of delicious fruit. What comes next will be surprising and new.
The end is always coming. Sometimes it seems far off. Sometimes it fills the entire frame of vision. In a couple of weeks, we will again hear Mary’s song, in which she magnifies “the Lord who has scattered the proud…,” who like a storm “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The coming of Christ is not to be feared by those who are on guard – who are vigilant against both disregard and despair. So, in this threshold time of year, of endings and beginnings, be vigilant and ready. Be risky and radically generous. Be fruitful and faithful. Stand up, be bold, and fear not.

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2017/11/22/at-yale-we-conducted-an-experiment-to-turn-conservatives-into-liberals-the-results-say-a-lot-about-our-political-divisions/

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Trails and Reign

Picture above entitled "Jesus Before Pilate" depicts Pilate interrogating Jesus perhaps asking, "Truth? What is truth?" 

"Trials and Reign"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

November 25, 2018

2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-38a

Christ the King Sunday – or as I prefer to call it, Reign of Christ Sunday – is the newest addition to the Christian liturgical year – less than a century old. I prefer Reign of Christ because kristos simply means anointed – it is not hierarchical or gendered. It was “established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to the increasing threat of the rise of fascism. Authoritarian leaders of fascist regimes were being lifted up as all-powerful demigods, and the Roman Catholic Church created this holy day in an attempt to reclaim power for the church as opposed to the secular nation-state. Unfortunately, a Christian message of anti-fascism and anti-nationalism continues to be more and more relevant as fascist leaders gain power in many countries around the world. There are government officials within our own country with documented ties to White Nationalist Groups, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes continue to rise, and [some who have the attention of the news media and social media] proudly say, “I am a nationalist.”[i] So, Reign of Christ Sunday is probably the most deliberately political Sunday of the Christian year.
I think that’s pretty ironic, because I was officially informed in my annual performance evaluation on Tuesday that some people find my preaching to be too much about politics. That’s not a surprise to me. Believe it or not, I try every week to temper my tendency to hear the Gospel speaking directly to the incarnate world in which we live. I find it really difficult to refrain from what I hear the Spirit saying about our joined-together lives. I read in scripture that none of us is free if one of us is not. And the scriptures assigned for Reign of Christ Sunday don’t help. They lead me down that same old path. King David’s final words according to Samuel are praise and thanksgiving that the God of his ancestors has promised that his descendants will once again rule over Israel. And according to John, Jesus’ trials before Pilate seems to be about political authority and influence. But, with your help and forbearance, I will try to get better.
There was another message conveyed to me in my review on Tuesday. Again, it was no surprise to me, and just as painful to hear. I could be better at pastoral care. I know that. My own self-perception is that I am warm, open, and non-judgmental. But somehow I don’t learn of the needs you have or the ways you want me to respond to those needs. Not so long ago I learned that some see me as “formidable.” Perhaps some find me unapproachable, uncaring, or even callous….
Maybe a little like Pilate.
I’ll be seeking ways to be more self-aware as well as more aware of how you want to be cared for pastorally. Perhaps you will help me be a better pastor for you. It is my hope and desire that we all will become better disciples of Jesus – better followers, more Christ-like, individually and corporately. If we could sweep away everything we do as “the church” and focus exclusively on ways that help us become better disciples – to love more people and love people more – I would do it in a flash. I want us to be unshakeable in our allegiance to the One who comes, and heals, and serves us.
What trials do we face and what does it mean for Jesus to reign? Just as it was and is countercultural for Jesus to say to the political authorities of his day and ours, “You are not the boss of me!” it is also profoundly countercultural, and at the heart of the Gospel for us to say, “It’s not all about me – it’s about us. When we belong to Christ, we belong to each other.” So much of what we experience in the world today as meaninglessness and loss is the logical extension of the idea that we are separate and discrete individuals, and that free will and freedom of choice are fundamentally about individuals rather than about relationships, connections, and communities.
One of the things that I hear in the Gospel narrative for today is that God is both trusting and trustworthy. God is committed to the working out of salvation within the parameters of creation. Jesus’ trial demonstrates that God does not stick a little finger into the course of human events to fix them on behalf of Jesus. The “trial” is not “fixed.” And yet Jesus – God’s most intimate confidante and agent in creation – can trust God to bring about salvation within the confines of our embodied reality. So how does humanity’s reputation fare in this encounter? Does Pilate represent us? Is he humanity in action? He is pompous and cruel, and yet bound by systems of injustice and compromise that are beyond the manipulation of even so powerful a man. Certainly he represents an aspect of our nature. He is vain, though more disciplined than Herod, and he seems to be smaller than the role he is trying to fill. He is caught up in a system that is larger than he is, in which his actions are dictated by powers outside his control. He sounds quite familiar. Even the most powerful among us can feel small and impotent.
While it may seem like little more than an uncomfortable confrontation over authority, Jesus’ trial before Pilate reveals some things about the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of shalom – or health and wholeness of the common good. It may take a little digging to find, but it is certainly there. First, there is the issue of truth. When Pilate queries, “So, you are a king?” Jesus offers a two-part response. The first part is evasive – not really an answer at all. You say that I am a king.” This is the part we know best because it is present in the other gospels.
The second part of his response is more interesting. “I was born and came into the world for one purpose, to bear witness to the truth.” In Greek, even proper names have an article before them. So if you were to write or say something about me, you would use the article “the” – the Paul is the preacher today. But when we translate from Greek to English we need to decide when to keep the article. So we translate, “Paul is the preacher today.” dropping one article and keeping the other. I think the second part of Jesus’ response to Pilate makes more sense if we drop the article. “I was born and came into the world for one purpose, to bear witness to truth.” The truth to which Jesus bears witness here is that Pilate is not the authority. What he represents is not authority. Pilate is a sham who must derive his authority from elsewhere. Truth is when we present ourselves as we are – dependent creatures intended for compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, and charity.
Another revelation that leapt out at me from the language of this text is the underlying meaning of the word translated as “world” in English. Previously I had always assumed that the Greek word kosmon meant the whole of observable creation, as we use the word cosmos. But in fact, the origin of the word means order or system. So Jesus is saying to Pilate, “My reign is not from this system. If my reign were from this system, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over….” Jesus is saying that he is part of a system in which he has complete authority, a system based on compassion not control, inclusion not hierarchy, forgiveness not accusation, and hospitality not privilege. In effect, Jesus is telling Pilate, “We co-exist, but as parts of a completely different system. Your system has no authority over mine, even if the authority you wield were your own and not bestowed from afar.”
Pilate’s next words are illuminating. In verse 38, Pilate says, “What is truth?” He has become so bound up, so enmeshed in his system that he cannot see the deception, the lie that he is living, or the truth that is staring him in the face. This may not be good news for Pilate, but for us, who are privy to way, truth, and life through Jesus Christ, this is very good news. If we read the entire account of Jesus’ trials with Pilate, we see that at least three times Pilate tried to release Jesus from execution. Pilate declared him innocent more than once. He distanced himself from the decision, and even after the execution, he authorized a “proper” burial. But in the end, as noted in Alan Culpepper’s narrative analysis of the role of Pilate’s character in John’s Gospel, “Pilate is a study in the impossibility of compromise, the inevitability of decision, and the consequences of each decision. In the end, although he seems to glimpse the truth, a decision in Jesus’ favor proves too costly for [Pilate]. In this maneuver to force the reader to a decision regarding Jesus, the evangelist exposes the consequences of attempting to avoid a decision. Pilate represents the futility of attempted compromise. [We who try] to temporize or escape through the gate of indecision will find Pilate as [our] companion along that path.”[ii]
The decision for Christ, the decision to follow Jesus, is indeed a difficult one for both the powerful and the disempowered. It’s not possible to make that choice alone. We must do it together, in the realm in which, when terror, loss, and crisis strike, our response is, “How heartbreaking that this comes in a place – to a community – so beautiful and replete with love.” Let us then subject our very selves to the reign of the Christ who shows us what love is like.

[i] https://www.disruptworshipproject.com/rcl/christ-the-king-sunday
[ii] R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Folrtress Press, 1983), 143.