Saturday, July 4, 2020

Gratitude - Jesus Style

"Gratitude - Jesus Style"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 7, 2020

Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Luke 18:9-14

Privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a designated person or group. For most of my life I have thought of privilege as a good thing. I would say, “It’s my privilege.” as a way of acknowledging that something special was happening – that I was in receipt of some honor or unmerited favor. The word privilege occupied the same realm for me as “honor” and “inclusion, as in “It’s an honor to be included in this company of important or smart or kind or special people.” It was even a tacit way of saying “Thank you.” to those special people for receiving me or “Thank you.” to those important people who had the power to invite me and chose to exercise it. So, privilege, in my mind, has long been linked to gratitude. Now, I’m in a quandary. Now, I’m not so sure. Now, I need to sort out what comes to me due to my white privilege, and what comes to me because of the kindness of others, and what comes to me because of the white privilege of the kind people who reward me with unmerited privilege. The problem arises when privilege comes to be expected.
Somehow, it does not seem right to be grateful for something given to me in small or large part because someone else was prevented from enjoying the same by the system of advantage and disadvantage that undergirds our society. A debt is created. And in our history, that debt has been extracted from people of color – especially from black people. The very idea of whiteness was created so that a class of persons could enjoy this special advantage due to a supposed hierarchy of value. Whiteness has been fluid. In its earliest expressions it excluded Irish and Italian immigrants to this continent – as if some human beings were not quite human – as if some where closer and more beloved of God than others. You can detect that it was anti-Catholic as well due to the immigrants that were lumped together with slaves. It seems like a peculiarly Protestant affliction.When we pay attention – when we are true to our heritage as followers of Jesus – when we consider the fact that race is a manmade (and I mean to be gender specific) social construct, we know this is not true. We know that God has poured being into all creation, and proclaimed it all good. It takes a powerful, invasive, and insidious system in order to maintain the blatant falsehood that undergirds inequity, poverty, and privilege. And the truth is that we need to de-couple gratitude and privilege. Gratitude – Jesus style must be a response to what is enjoyed by the entire beloved community. Gratitude – Jesus style must motivate a response which seeks to extend all that I have been granted as “privilege” to the entire beloved community.Gratitude – Jesus style is not simply a good feeling, a warm heart, an appreciation of an unmerited gift that we have received, but an action which extend that gift to others.If we understand privilege as unmerited gift, we are truly indebted to God for the unmerited gift of creation. Chapter one of Genesis tells us as much. We marvel at the sheer overabundance, beauty, and power of the natural world, as well as it’s fragility and interconnectedness. God needed no reason to pour out being into creation. There is no “why” in Genesis 1. It is in God’s nature to do so. God could not help it. Neither could God help making humanity in God’s own image and likeness – in other words, sharing the power and essence that is Holy Being. We are at our most human when we do likewise – when we pour out our being, sharing our essence and our power with the beloved community. There is much in that first chapter of the Bible that we take for granted or gloss overIt was written later than the second chapter and by a different group – the priestly class. They were elites in whose interest it was to keep order and prop up the hierarchy. Thus their expression of God is the One who hovers over chaos and acts to organize it – to bring order out of chaos. The phrase we remember in English is “without form and void.” In its original language, tohu vabohu means ruin and desolation. The experience of the Hebrew people that was to be avoided at all cost was the ruination of defeat and occupation. They imagined and desired a God who would defeat their enemies – who would upend the hierarchy of world powers.But there is a gift in their story as well. Humanity was created in the same day as the main of the animal kindom – in fact, part of the animal kindom. Those ancient priests knew that we are deeply interconnected with the animal world, and that we were given responsibility to live in the same day with it – in community of some form. And from the outset, all humanity is kin as well. Our very being is mutual, universal giftCreation is not a gift for some and not others – it is not privilege. We are rightly grateful.Gratitude – Jesus style goes beyond thanks. And Gratitude – Jesus style is not merely thanks to God for the gift of creation, but it is all we do to extend the reach of that gift. Gratitude is to move – from I to we, and to expand the we to all.Gratitude is cognate with graceGrace is freely given, but not an end in itself. Grace is kinetic – it moves us. The word and concept of grace shares the Indo-European root with gravity. It is serious business, and it is what holds all things together. It is a relationship of mutual attraction. It is as though, if we get gratitude right, all other things will follow. Ronald Rolheiser’s first invitation to mature discipleship is Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.” That deserves some qualification. It hinges on who the you is. We must remember that to be a disciple of Jesus is to be in community – it is not a solitary practice. “Your” life is the life we all share. We, as followers of Jesus, are to enjoy this life we all share.Part of what the Coronavirus has done is to reveal how separate we have made ourselves, and how some have more access to that shared life than others. If we’ve had to make few adjustments or sacrifices in the pandemic it is a mark of the separation we already live. I know of pastors and congregations that claim God has sent the Coronavirus as a tool or lesson to teach us how to worship better, or worse, that in fact God does love some more than others. That would be a god filled with self-loathing. But the God of grace does work through all things for good, and so should we. Rohlheiser claims that Gratitude is the basis of all holiness. The holiest person you know is the most grateful person you know. That is true, too, for love: the most loving person you know is the most grateful person you know, because even love finds its basis in gratitude. Anything we call love, but that is not rooted in gratitude, will, at the end of the day be manipulative and self-serving. If our love and service of others does not begin in gratitude, we will end up carrying [other] people’s crosses and sending them the bill.”Surprisingly, Jesus teaches far more about money in the Gospels than about gratitude per se. or perhaps his stories about money are actually about gratitudePharisees, whose primary concern in Jesus’ time was not to upset the system, often bear the brunt of his teaching, being cast as callous and holding themselves apart. It is rarely that they are portrayed as guilty for what they do, but as incomplete in their righteousness. They believe in meritocracy. They have the means to live up to the stringencies of the holiness code. They benefit from a system that precludes access to grace for entire communities, assuming that they themselves are either intrinsically better, or have earned their privilege,  or both. “I thank you God, that I am not like that tax collector over there.” The tax collector was in a marginalized class – by society’s definition unclean. But it was the tax collector whose reliance on the unmerited gift of grace motivated humble gratitude. “The real task in life,” says Rolheiser, “is to recognize … that everything is a gift and that we need to keep saying thanks over and over again for all the things in life that we so much take for granted, recognizing that it’s nobody’s job to take care of us.”Beloved, I would go farther. Gratitude – Jesus style, is to take the next step. It is to engage in the third part of the four-part contemplative stance – to cooperate with God where the Spirit is moving. Today, and every day since she hovered over the formless void, Spirit is wooing us closer to each other and closer to the planet, coaxing us to eliminate any possibility of privilege – any possibility that we can enjoy unmerited favor that is cut off from anyone else. Are you grateful for your robust health care? Extend it to all. Are you grateful for the blessings of family and neighbor? Share them with others. Are you grateful for delicious and nutritious food, a safe place to sleep, time to read, exercise, listen to music, simply live without fear of losing your life or your loved ones because of someone else’s illusion of superiority or privilege? Do whatever is in your power to extend those to others. They should not be considered privileges – that is special rights, advantages, or immunities granted or available only to a particular person or group. Genuine gratitude for the other’s enjoyment is Gratitude – Jesus style.So.Do good.Do no harm.Stay in love with God and neighbor.Wear your mask.Wash your hands.Black Lives Matter.

Stand - Jesus Style

"Stand - Jesus Style"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 28, 2020

Exodus 2:23-25, and 3:1-16; Matthew 10:39-42

Where are we supposed to stand? How are we supposed to stand? With whom are we supposed to stand?
Standing is one of the unique characteristics of our species. It sets us apart from most other mammals. Even the kangaroo needs the support of its tail to stand still. Even among primates, we are the most erect. Our posture gave us the free use of our hands and allowed the evolution of binocular vision – forward looking. Standing allows our species to reach out to others, as well as grab and go, to hold on tightly – for good or ill, to bear another’s burden, or to bear arms. Standing reinforces the illusion that we are disconnected organisms – that somehow, we can stand alone. Standing reinforces our competitive nature, and we grant more respect and power to those who are taller – whose posture is more upright. Even our language about moral behavior reflects this. To be upright means to be just, righteous, and correct in our relationships with God and neighbor. Standing also introduces some vulnerabilities. We are quick to forget the wake we have left in our passing. We tend even to overlook the world in which we currently stand. Our eyes and thoughts often dwell on what is yet to come. If we dwell on the past, we are bound to trip. If our eyes are only on our own footsteps, we miss the grand vistas of sky and horizon. To kneel is to defer. To stand is to defy. To kneel is respect. To stand is proud.
In his encounter with I AM WHO I AM, Moses is not instructed to kneel or bow down in the divine presence. Moses is called off his path to stand – on holy ground. And as if to say, “you belong here on this holy ground,” I AM WHO I AM instructs him to remove his shoes, to plant his feet in that place, and to stand in connection with earth from whence he came. Moses came to be in the wilderness of Midian as an immigrant and a fugitive. He had witnessed cruel injustice at the hands of the Egyptian police against a Hebrew slave. In the heat of his outrage, though not so heated that he neglected to check for bystanders, Moses beat the officer to death. Did Moses know of his birth heritage? The text is unclear. What is clear is that he had time to stop and reflect on his actions. Even if he only had eight minutes and forty-six seconds, there were many moments when Moses could have chosen to stop. His secret couldn’t keep. He had to flee. Now he has been called before the divine messenger. Was it a reward for his deadly protest against injustice? Or was the mission God imposed on him a punishment for taking the life of another beloved child of God? Either way, God seems to be saying to Moses, “You don’t like the injustice you see. I don’t like it either. Let’s do something about it. Go back and stand before the emperor.”
This is the model of leadership that Moses’ descendants were longing for when they encountered Jesus. Someone who had the impulse to act. Someone who would stand up to the empire. Someone who would end the suffering of occupation. Jesus wasn’t that kind of human. Jesus did not seek to overthrow the empire intending to establish another in its image. Instead, Jesus sought to infect the system with a new virus – working with agents so small they could barely be seen. The tenth chapter of Matthew is the instruction manual for these agents about to be sent out into a hostile world – a world that seeks stability at any cost – even the cost of its very soul.
In Matthew, Jesus often calls his followers the little ones – those of short stature. He does not attempt to minimize the risks or challenges they face in doing this counter-cultural work. Matthew foreshadows the great parable of the sheep and the goats here, indicating that wherever the little ones are met with hospitality, are treated as human, even in such a simple gesture as a cup of cold water, they are standing in the right place. When strangers treat strangers with grace, grace will come to them. The culminating advice for the disciples about to set out to do what disciples do was this: “You’ll know you stand in the right place when those who greet you offer you something both simple and life giving – a stance of humility and hospitality. Go, and do likewise. You may not have all the answers – or any of them. But you have the power to heal – to make and be human. To stand – Jesus style.”
The culminating invitation to mature discipleship offered by Rolheiser in his book Sacred Fire: A Mission for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity is this: “Stand where you are supposed to be standing, and let God provide the rest.” [i] As with his elaborations of many of the other invitations, I am not thrilled with this one. For one thing, it seems to imply that we can “stand” on our own – that it’s a matter of individual posture – that what really matters is our individual kindness to strangers and not where we stand as a society. This is in part how we fall into the trap of protesting that we have black friends, that we don’t see color, that we do not use racist language, that “all lives matter.” But, as we have seen, our society is not a friend to people of color, our vision of humanity assumes the normativity of whiteness, our habits and speech are riddled with microaggressions, and, in fact, all lives do not matter to the whole of us. Rolheiser acknowledges the fragility and vulnerability of human life. Standing in the right place cannot keep death at bay – which reminds us despite our upright posture that we remain mortal. Indeed, at times, standing in the right place leads directly to our demise. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Oscar Romero – standing with those bowed down by the weight of poverty, violence, and racism. They stood shoulder to shoulder with them, defiantly speaking truth to power. They were assassinated precisely because they stood in the right place. It’s not safe. It’s sacred. It’s holy ground.
Rolheiser also suggests that, despite its inability to protect us from mortality, standing in the right place and leaving the rest to God is enough. Well, it may be enough if a first-class ticket out of this weary world is the goal. That is an exceedingly small vision. It’s much too small to warrant the beauty, diversity, and agency that God has granted us. I say, we could each individually stand in the right place and still not stand together in the right place. We could all agree, and still be wrong. Jesus granted to those who follow him the authority to expel unclean spirits, and to heal sickness and disease of every kind. One disease, Covid-19, has helped to unmask a very deep sickness of our soul – what has been called America’s original sin – racism. It’s not a sickness that we merely happened upon – that we wandered into – though in its origins, many were distracted by the promises of manifest destiny and the illusion of sovereignty. We have been duped. We have duped ourselves. In addition to our unique ability to stand, our species has the proclivity to turn away from that which unsettles us. We want to entertain more pleasant notions of how well some masters treated their slaves – as if that is enough to heal the atrocities of the slave trade, the tyranny of lynchings, the injustice of Jim Crow laws, the outrage of redlining, the crime of poll taxes, the extraction of capital from human beings, and the continuing school to prison pipeline. Enough. We want to say enough. We want to stand as human together and declare “Enough.”
This is the last Sunday of my fourth year as pastor here. I’m among the most blessed of pastors. I’ve been granted the opportunity to stand with you for another year. As I prepared for my arrival here four years ago, I had three BHAGs – big, hairy, audacious goals. One was to help this congregation take another step toward environmental sustainability. Now, we have decided to begin raising capital to install a solar power array and a more energy efficient heating system. It’s not because of my authority that this is happening. I am merely the disciple who was greeted here with a cup of cold water. The second BHAG was to address the lack of affordable housing on the island. Well. That’s not going to happen any time soon – though I have offered our hospitality to those who work to bring more housing options to fruition. Instead of housing, it’s been adequate food and nutrition that we have stood to support and now we are inching toward standing shoulder to shoulder with the food bank to become a place of humble healing and hospitality in our community. It’s not because of my authority that this is happening. I am merely the follower of Jesus who was greeted with a cup of cold water.
As if those were not audacious enough, my third big, hairy, audacious goal was to address systemic racism in this least racially diverse zip code in our state. And here we are – having been plunged by the spirit of the times neck deep into the cold water – awakening yet again to the deep entrenchment of systemic racism. As followers of Jesus – a person of Afro-Asian descent, whose ancestors entered the land not as slaves, but as occupiers, but a land now occupied by a militaristic, class based empire – where are we supposed to stand? How are we supposed to stand? With whom are we supposed to stand? Our conversation in the divine presence and on holy ground may begin with reparations. As a congregation we might consider reparations to the descendants of slaves whose flesh was capital in constructing the global economy. We might consider real rent to the descendants of the native peoples who considered this place home when our ancestors arrived?
If we stand up to this challenge, if we address America’s original sin in a meaningful and lasting way, it won’t be because of my authority that this is happening. I am merely the follower of Jesus who was greeted with a cup of cold water. The humble, healing, human stance of the follower of Jesus is to arrive empty handed – not having all the answers, ready to accept the cup of cold water, and to stay for the conversation without predetermining its conclusion.
“Stand where you are supposed to be standing, and let God provide the rest.” [ii] This culminating invitation to mature discipleship brings us full circle. Show up. Pay attention. Cooperate with God where Spirit is moving. Release the outcome.
Stand – Jesus style.

[i] Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (New York: Image, 2014), 246.
[ii] Ibid.

Choose - Jesus Style

"Choose - Jesus Style"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 21, 2020

Jeremiah 20:7-9, 12-13, and 22:1-5, 13-16; Matthew 13:10-17

Prophecy is not fortune telling or prediction. Biblical prophecy – especially the Hebrew prophets – is prompted by context and enabled by Spirit. It sees through the immediate context into what lies beneath, between, and beyond the moment. The true prophet sees, and says, and sighs. The prophet sees what is really going on. The prophet says what is really going on. And the prophet sighs – to God on behalf of the people and to the people on behalf of God – what is really going on. The word of the prophet unveils what really is – what is eternal. The mark of true prophecy is its enduring relevance – you might even say its eternal truth. As with the gospels, we can unroll the scroll of any true prophet to any place and find relevance to our own context. This is what makes the prophetic voice “Gospel” as well. And for followers of Jesus, this understanding is deeply endorsed by Jesus’ frequent and pointed quotation of prophetic texts. So, having said that, I’d like to share again the voice of Jeremiah that we have already heard today, and let you reflect for a moment before proceeding to Ronald Rolheiser’s invitation to mature discipleship for today, which is this: “Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.”[i]
Here’s Jeremiah speaking to the leaders of his nation about twenty-seven centuries ago:
YHWH Omnipotent, you who test the just, who probe both mind and heart, let me witness the vengeance you take on them, for to you I have entrusted my cause.
Sing to YHWH, praise to YHWH, for God has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the corrupt!
[In response] Thus says YHWH: “Go down to the house of Judah’s ruler with this message: ‘Ruler of Judah, who sits on David’s judgment seat – hear this word from YHWH. It is for you, your attendants, and your people who pass through these gates. YHWH God says: Act with justice and integrity: rescue the victim from the oppressor; do not oppress or mistreat resident aliens or the orphaned or widowed, and don’t shed innocent blood in this place.
If you carry out these commands, the rulers who will sit on David’s judgment seat will come through the gates of this house riding in chariots and on horses – they, their attendants, and their people. But I solemnly swear, says YHWH, that if you do not carry out these commands, this house will become a ruin.
Woe to the ruler who builds a house without integrity and its upper rooms with injustice, enslaving the citizenry, not paying for their labor!
Woe to the ruler who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house with airy upper rooms, and numerous open windows and cedar paneling painted in vermilion.’
Do you out-rival other rulers because you panel in cedar?
Did not your predecessor, like you, eat and drink?
He practiced justice and integrity, and all went well for him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and all went well for him.
Is that not what it means to know me? says YHWH.

Just let that sink in to our context.
Sometimes scripture can simply speak for itself.
What does it mean to be human, and how are we to treat any other human. We, as a species, can’t seem to agree. Of course, there are many different meanings arising from different contexts. But, let’s just say we are looking for the prophetic meaning of “human” – the meaning that is prompted by context and enabled by Spirit – that sees through the immediate context into what lies beneath, between, and beyond the moment. The video that I shared for the Kid’s Zoom today suggested that to be human is to extend our circle of care beyond ourselves – to other humans, to other creatures, to the whole of creation. That’s a very good start. We can peel away layer after layer of meaning as we discover more and more about what is really going on – just as science has peeled away layer after layer of what we perceive on the surface to be real. The ancient Greeks suggested the idea of atoms. Today we have peeled away the layers far enough to suggest that both matter and energy arise from the same underlying wave phenomena, and that there are mysterious forces of attraction between all these phenomena. All the waves are connected by mutual attraction. Sounds a lot like love, doesn’t it. Perhaps there is some truth to our claim that God is Holy Being, and that all being is an outpouring of God’s essence, which is self-giving attraction. To be human is to have the capacity to live and love like that.
We might condense the entire Hebrew scripture to one command, found in Deuteronomy: “Choose life!” [ii] Deuteronomy means second law – not because it’s different from some first law, but because it is a synopsis and interpretation of the first four books of the Torah. It includes this instruction to the leader of the Hebrew people: “Today I have set before you life and success, or death and disaster. For today I command you to love YHWH, your God, to follow God’s ways …. But if your hearts stray and you do not listen to me, if you let yourself be drawn into the worship of other gods, and serve them, I tell you today, you will not survive…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live, by loving YHWH, your God, by obeying God’s voice and by clinging to YHWH. For that will mean life for you.”
You might say the rest is commentary.
But we humans do tend to wander, don’t we? And we lose track of what it means to be human and who God commands us to include as human. We especially lose track of the fact that we cannot be human alone. To be human – at least in the prophetic definition – means to be together. There is no such thing as a single human being. From beginning to end, the story of creation and fulfillment of creation, is congregate. The end – the telos – the attractive force of God’s self-giving love – is drawing us together and beyond our separation. We cannot be followers of Jesus alone. We must be one body, with many parts that work together toward that end. Jesus encouraged this by elaborating the scriptural command “Choose life!” as “Choose love!”
Choose – Jesus style.
Rolheiser’s fourth invitation to mature discipleship, “Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.” [iii] suggests a fundamental characteristic of being human. Choice. Suffering seems to be a universal human condition as well – but I wouldn’t go as far as saying we must suffer to be human. Instead, the nearly universal human condition of suffering engages a more fundamental aspect of our nature – to choose. As so-called “free will,” choice has played an important and often misunderstood role in Christian theology. In the attempt to explain the phenomenon of evil – particularly the evil of suffering – the doctrine of free will suggests that it is our fault that evil exists, or at least our ignorance and fallibility that causes and allows evil to flourish. I struggle with that that thesis, but let’s leave that quibble for another day. For now, let us say that both some degree of suffering and some degree of choice have a role to play in our maturity as followers of Jesus and in the fulfillment of our humanity.
Rolheiser elaborates: “Suffering and humiliation find us all…. But how we respond to them will determine both the level of our maturity and [our humanity]. Suffering and humiliation will either soften our hearts or harden our souls…. There is no depth of soul without suffering. We attain depth primarily through suffering…. If any of us were to ask ourselves the question: What has given me depth? What has opened me up to deeper perception and deeper understanding? almost invariably, the answer would be one of which we were [loath] to speak: we were bullied as a child, we were abused in some way, something within our physical appearance makes us feel inferior, … we are socially awkward, the list goes on, but the truth is always the same. To the extent that we have depth we have also [suffered].” [iv] The full weight of Rolheiser’s invitation takes effect when we connect our individual experience of suffering to our participation in the body that is humanity. Like the mysterious force connecting all wave phenomena that we experience as matter and energy, we are part of one great exhalation of Spirit. We are one Adam – one creature of clay and Spirit. Suffering makes us deep, but “It can make us deep in understanding, empathy, and forgiveness, or it can make us deep in resentment, bitterness, and vengeance.” [v] The difference is our choice. Jesus lived one choice – to be utterly deepened in understanding, empathy, and forgiveness.
Neither our suffering, nor our choosing are ours alone. George Floyd’s suffering and death were not his alone. They belong to generations of crushing oppression on the necks of black people and to their continuing burden. They should belong to us as well, insofar as we choose to be human. We must all own the crushing weight of the police officer’s knee on his neck. The officer’s choice to kneel on his neck, to ignore the pleas of Mr. Floyd and the witnesses to that suffering, also were not solely his own. They belong to all of us, and to generations of white folks who choose patterns of privilege and separation over the attractive force of our humanity. We are part of the humanity that has chosen to keep our knee on the neck of people of color. This narrative – this living parable – has been set before us. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to soften? Or, as we exercise our human capacity to choose, do we choose to look the other way, to silence the prophetic voice that speaks eternal truth from this context, to harden our collective soul?
It’s tough growing up.
Some of us never do.
Humanity is clearly still in its adolescence. Shall we suffer “to become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ? Let us then be children no longer, tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine, or by human trickery or crafty, deceitful schemes. Rather, let us speak the truth in love, and grow to the full maturity of Christ, the head. Through Christ, the whole body grows. With the proper functioning of each member, firmly joined together by each supporting ligament, the body builds itself up in love.” [vi]
So, beloved, let us choose.
Choose – Jesus style.

[i] Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (New York: Image, 2014), 245.
[ii] Deuteronomy 30:19, The Inclusive Bible.
[iii] Rolheiser, 245.
[iv] Ibid., 253-254.
[v] Ibid., 254.
[vi] Ephesians 4:13b-16, The Inclusive Bible.

Bless - and Curse - Jesus Style

"Bless - and Curse - Jesus Style"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 and Matthew 9:35-10:20

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha olam.
Blessed are you, O YHWH God, Sovereign of the universe.
This is the phrase that opens nearly every Hebrew blessing. It is certainly in Jesus' mind when he taught his followers to pray. If we understand the formula for prayer that is laid out in Matthew and Luke to be an outline of prayer rather than an instance of prayer, this is probably what Jesus was thinking in that opening phase that we know as “Our Father who is in heaven….” Blessed are you, O YHWH God, Sovereign of the universe.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
In the first church I served as a pastor, a mostly white congregation in West Los Angeles, one of the head ushers, Uly Griggs, had grown up getting into trouble in the Black community in South Central LA. Eventually he got himself through college and a Master’s degree at UCLA, with the persistent help of mentors who did not give up on him, despite his predilection for getting in trouble. They blessed him. They did not curse him. When I knew him, he was an advocate for persons working with disabilities. Whenever asked, “How are you Uly?” his unwavering response was, “I’m blessed.” And the way he said it was a blessing to everyone who asked. He blessed us. He did not curse us.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
Last Sunday after our Zoom fellowship time, on our short walk from the sanctuary to the parsonage, Mary and I were talking about privilege and gratitude, and remarking that here, in this least ethnically diverse zip code in the state, that I do not have much opportunity to work with people of color. Remember, privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a designated person or group. As a straight, cis-gendered, white, male, mainline pastor, I have a weight of privilege – you might say a burden of privilege – though not as heavy as the burden of those who have paid the price for my privilege – mostly people of color since 1492. Though, I have been blessed by meaningful interaction – you might even say friendship – with three Native American women over the past four years. More broadly, I have been blessed – and cursed – by interactions with marginalized persons who suffer dehumanization because they appear different, frightening, or unclean.
I mentioned to Mary that we had been seeing more of Paul Becker lately. You may remember that he attended worship with us in person several times last year. He is heavily tattooed, missing many teeth, and has suffered stroke or seizures resulting in heavily slurred speech. I had thought he had found some housing, but apparently that had fallen through, as we have seen signs of him camping around town. As Mary and I approached the front porch of the parsonage, we saw him sitting there. I thought to myself something like, “Dear God, this business of following Jesus is often a curse.” Fay and Tegan had answered him at the door, given him cold water to drink, and boiled water for us cup of ramen. I sat with him on the porch. He talked for a bit, asked me to bless him, and then moved on.
Thus began a week of more than daily interaction with Paul. Monday he stopped by, asked for prayer, and left. Tuesday he came again. I wasn’t home. Fay and Tegan were home, but understandably and appropriately didn’t answer the door. Wednesday morning he knocked on door again. I asked how I could help him. He said he just wanted to talk. So, I listened. He talked for about 20 minutes, got up, started weeping, prayed over me, handed me $10 for the church, and left. Again, Thursday morning, he came to the door, handed me $10, and asked for help making a poster about how stereotyping is wrong. So, we went over to the Education Building porch and I made the poster for him. He said “Is stereotyping OK? I get stereotyped all the time.” I said it’s wrong because it assumes you know someone when you don’t. So, asked me to write “STEREOTYPING IS WRONG. YOU DON’T KNOW ME!”
As I was working, he told me an older brother had started him drinking when he was 5. He was sober for 19 years until recently. He wants to quit. He asked me for prayer for release from substance abuse, so I prayed. Then he wanted me to take his hat. I said “No, it’s raining, you need it.” He said “I can always get another hat.” So, I took the hat and it had $20 in it. I said “You don’t have to do this.” He said “Don’t get used to it.” Then he left. Earlier that morning, as I worked out at the reopened gym, two friends asked about William’s truck, which has been in our parking lot again for over a month. They said, “Of course, it makes sense he’s there. You take care of people.” I assume by you, they meant us. I said “I never thought when I became a pastor that I’d know the street people so well.” They said “Well, you’re doing the Lord’s work.” Blessing is the work of followers of Jesus. I blessed Paul. Paul blessed me. I did not curse him. He did not curse me.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
Ronald Rolheiser’s sixth invitation to mature discipleship is “Bless more and curse less.” I’m not satisfied with his elaboration on this invitation, but I agree it is near the heart of Christ. As if to give me a better illustration of this invitation, perhaps the Holy Spirit was with me in my encounters with Paul this week. Parenthetically, I believe the Holy Spirit has been powerfully present this week in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle. The Spirit is present always and everywhere, but is powerfully manifest in times of anxiety, unrest, and turmoil. The Hebrew Bible is packed with references to blessing and cursing. I learned this week that the literal meaning of the Hebrew word בּרךְ – bless – is “fill with power” or “empower.” What a wonderful discovery! When we bless someone, we are empowering them. When we ask God’s blessing, we are asking for God to fill someone with power.
As followers of Jesus, we believe that God’s power, essence, and being is love. God blessed Sarah and Abraham with an heir – even though Sarah had previously distrusted God’s promise and had taken her own action to give Abraham a son. Jesus empowered the twelve to do everything Jesus was doing: “These twelve Jesus sent out after giving them the following instructions: “Don’t visit Gentile regions, and don’t enter a Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The reign of heaven has drawn near.’ Heal those who are sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, expel demons. You received freely – now freely give. … Look for worthy people in whatever town or village you come to, and stay with them until you leave. As you enter a house, bless it. If the home is deserving, your peace will descend on it. If it isn’t, your peace will return to you.” What sort of home is deserving in Jesus’ estimation? Well, especially those that have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, comforted the ill, and kept company with the captive, imprisoned, and enslaved – both physically and spiritually. The litmus test of this empowerment is mutual hospitality, as is illustrated by the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah where the residents had infamously been inhospitable to strangers who were different, frightening, or unclean.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
As followers of Jesus, we are also called to curse. Let me explain. The Hebrew Bible is also filled with curses. The literal meaning of the word קִלֵּל  – is to reduce or make of little account. The Greek equivalent means to make barren, unproductive, or of no effect. We must curse the evil the evil of racism. We must become courageously and sacrificially anti-racist. We cannot do this alone, … or even together, without the troubling, guiding, unsettling, comforting Spirit that Jesus bestowed on his followers. We need to curse the three powers that Dr. King enumerated in his speech “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma” to the Hunger Club, a place where sympathetic white politicians could meet out of the public eye with local black leaders, who were excluded from many of the city’s civic organizations. King addressed the club on May 10, 1967. “Somehow these three evils are tied together. The triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. The great problem and the great challenge facing mankind today is to get rid of war … We have left ourselves as a nation morally and politically isolated in the world. We have greatly strengthened the forces of reaction in America, and excited violence and hatred among our own people.”[i] These evils are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. They constitute an engine that transfers privilege to some and suffering to others. … Jesus, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Perhaps, one day, history will look back on our time as a jubilee year.
Jesus cursed as well as blessed. He seems to have been profligate in his blessing, bestowing the power of love on anyone and everyone. He reserved his curses for those who wielded worldly power – in other words, privilege. The words bless and curse come together in only two places in the Greek testament – the Gospel of Luke, and the Epistle to the Romans. They both express the same meaning: “Bless those who curse you.” So let us be profligate in love and bold in deconstructing evil.
Let us bless – and curse – Jesus style.

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World: Racism was only the first.”, The Atlantic Magazine online, This article is an excerpt of a speech originally titled “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma.” © 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, © renewed 1995 Coretta Scott King. All works by Martin Luther King Jr. have been reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., care of Writers House as agent for the proprietor, New York, New York.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Sober - Jesus Style

"Sober - Jesus Style"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

May 31, 2020

Numbers 11:1-30 and Acts 2:1–13

I am not sober. At least not in the sense that I have stopped drinking. Though you may, at some point in this message think to yourself, “What is he saying? He must be drunk on new wine.” There is a complex tapestry to weave today – many threads are being woven together to create the history in which we find ourselves today. I’ll try to be clear.
This is Pentecost, the so-called birthday of the church. Since it’s an annual celebration, we think we know the story well, and often gloss over some important details. Pentecost was already an important feast day of Judaism, and still is today. It’s called Shavuot, and it celebrates the reception of the commandments on Mount Sinai in the wilderness early in the exodus from Egypt. As we know, the Hebrew slaves had been suddenly thrust from their normal lives – captive and marginalized as they were. Their status may have been only marginally better than slaves in the United States at the time of the emancipation proclamation. They were part of the economic engine that built and maintained the empire – Egypt this time.
Today, we admit that enslavement of African Americans, together with the rape and pillage of our natural environment, are what fueled the supremacy of the empire we inhabit. The name and center of power shifts, but the phenomenon of empire and slavery go hand in hand and reemerge again and again throughout human history. Sometimes that system is overt and blatant – the presumed norm. Other times it is insidious and deceptive, but no less powerful. Perhaps more so because it is all around us – in the air we breathe. Having escaped their multigeneration captivity, the Israelites found themselves in a new, unexpected, and equally uncomfortable situation.
The Hebrew people spent a generation in the wilderness, condemned to wander under contested leadership. The book of Numbers is a description of the events of those years. The Hebrew name for the book is “In the Wilderness!” The people are getting restless and cranky. They cry out, “When will this be over? When can we get back to normal – even though normal meant slavery? At least we were well fed. Now, we don’t know what to expect. We don’t know when this will all be over. We thought we were special people – that a land of milk and honey and privilege had been set aside for us! Where is it? We want it now. And, by the way, Moses, who made you the boss of us? We want to choose for ourselves and we don’t really care about the consequences.”
Lo and behold, God loves sarcasm. God says, “I’ll give you what you want until you’ve had so much it’s coming out of your noses!”
The commandments that Exodus tells us were brought down from on high began as simple rules to help the people survive their uncertainty and to guide them on their trek toward something new and life giving. Don’t waste your praise on empty things that are shiny and dehumanizing. Take time to rest together and be grateful. Respect one another’s intimate relationships. Do not get too far ahead of those who have been around for a while and may be slowing down a bit – in other words, take care of the vulnerable ones in your midst. You get the idea. Over time, I suspect, these simple rules for getting through a challenging time became fixed and rigid and precious. They became an institution – not all bad, but not very nimble. At it’s best, Shavuot is a time of return to the simplicity of surviving with just enough from day to day – a time to pause and be grateful. A sober time – though not without the cup of joy. Shavuot – called Pentecost by the Greek speaking Jews  is why there were “God-fearers” from throughout the diaspora in Jerusalem on Pentecost. As with many things throughout history, followers of Jesus who have become institutional Christians – especially when they wield some power – co-opt and colonize what is best in the lands and cultures they encounter. 
Often, it’s hard to get a Lector to read on Pentecost because of the difficult names of places and people that were gathered in Jerusalem for the festival.Theories abound regarding the importance and meaning of the listIt occurred to me that there are twelve groups. That number is familiar. Twelve tribes surrounded the tent of God’s presence in the wilderness. Twelve disciples surrounded the tent of God’s presence in Jesus. Now, twelve cultures are invited into relationship in language that respects their places and cultures of origin – a kind of anti-empire or reverse colonialismCould this be a suggestion by the author of Luke/Acts of a paradigm shift in the understanding of who is included in God’s invitation to be an example of holy living – an engine for the construction and maintenance of the beloved communityGod was working through the struggle and heartbreak of the diaspora to illumine a new way.
Pentecost, thenobserves God doing a new thing in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. But not for the first or last time. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples in the upper room weeks earlier. Before that, the synoptic Gospels agree that the Holy Spirit revealed Jesus’ glory to Jesus’ inner circle in the transfiguration. Before that, the Spirit descended in a flutter at Jesus’ baptism. Continuing to retrace the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we remember the annunciation, the visions of the prophets, Elisha receiving the Spirit from Elijah, Elijah receiving the Spirit in the still small voice, the transfer of the Spirit from Moses to the seventy leaders, the bush that did not burn, and in the beginning – the Spirit fluttering over the chaos of creation. So, the Holy Spirit has been with us always. One thing we notice is that the Spirit seems most manifest in times of paradigm shift – of crisis – often unexpected, or at least unprepared for. If ever there was a time for a Holy Spirit moment – it is now in the exile/exodus/diaspora/wilderness in which we find ourselves today.Pentecost is the bold gift of the Spirit poured out on the followers of Jesus, and the way I read it, on the bystanders as well. The gift is in the seeing of the formerly unseeable, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the courage and power to stand in league with the rabbi/teacher/healer from the backwater region of Galilee. It is a sobering task.
Ronald Rolheiser’s seventh invitation to mature discipleship is “Live in a more radical sobriety.” It’s a subtle and nuanced invitation. “A recovering alcoholic once told [him]: ‘Sobriety is only 10 percent about alcohol or a drug; it’s 90% about honesty. You can drink, if you don’t have to lie about it.’ As a moral principal, that requires some qualifications, but it covers a lot of ground: could you cheat someone, be sexually unfaithful, slander someone, or commit a sin of any kind and feel comfortable in sharing that openly with those who are closest to you?” For me, those would be my mom, Mary and our children, my trusted colleagues, you all. In other words, can I own up to my shadows with those whose opinions matter most? This presumes, of course, that somewhere deep inside we are governed or guided by a moral compass – a spark of the divine – an aspect of our creation in the image and likeness of a creator who pours out the very essence of being – a powerful, disturbing, comforting, visionary Spirit that imbues us as beloveds of God. I believe that is true.
The shadow I own up to, and am ashamed of, is that I am a racist, and so are you. Racism, like alcoholism or other forms of addiction is not the disease of an individual, but the disease of a system that manifests in the addictive behavior of individuals. I may not be the one who is drinking the racist Kool-Aid, but I’m part of the family that mixes the drink.
I also observe the insurgence of a mindset in our culture that has been called vice-signaling. It’s a kind of response or reaction to virtue-signaling which is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments merely intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue. A recent article in The Atlantic about the resistance to wearing masks in public defined it this way“Vice signaling turns everything  even, and especially, matters of life and death – into an empty contest. Its rhetoric is intended, The Independent put it recently, “to create a community based on cruelty and disregard for others, which is proud of it at the same time.” But it also works as its own gesture of individualism: “The essential message of a vice signal,” the essayist K. Thor Jensen wrote in 2018, “is that it’s never you that needs to change – the world needs to change around you.” There seems to be, in some quarters, a newly found bravado in displaying how very callous you can be. Compassion, in this view, is merely weakness.
Rolheiser’s point is that to be mature disciple we must confront and own our shadows, and to the extent we can, shed some light there, painful as that might be for the creatures that lurk there – whose eyes would rather not see. The lack of illumination over the generations results in a blindness to our collective disfunctions – cruelty, abuse, privilege, harm. Of course, the real world is right in front of us all the time. It’s a matter of habit that we do not see these disfunctions. The stories we do tell insidiously disguise what’s sick in our collective body. They normalize the contortions we embrace to preserve our comfort and convenience. The blatant lie is laying out in the open.
Sometimes, events conspire to illumine our path. Today, those events include the exodus of the pandemic, the collective mourning of thousands of deaths – many of which might have been prevented with science-based, non-partisan action, and the clear and inequitable impact of the virus and it’s economic effects on already struggling and marginalized peopleThen, on Monday, in full public view, a white police officer in Minneapolis, with the explicit consent of his colleagues, brazenly and casually murdered George Floyd – say his name: George Floyd. This same week, Tony McDade, a Black trans man was killed by police in Tallahassee. These killings are on the heels of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and scores of other deaths and acts of violence not caught on camera. On the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery I’ve heard it said, “Ahmaud was not killed because he was black. He was killed because his murderers were white supremacists. White privilege, and our reluctance to acknowledge or talk about it are what we mask in our drunken stupor. It’s no wonder that when the power of the Holy Spirit is poured out on the people, enabling truth to be spoken in clear language understood by all, the bystanders blurt out, “Oh, he must be drunk on new wine.”
At the outset, I said I am not sober. But I am profoundly serious. Now is the time for a paradigm shift. God is working through the struggle and heartbreak of the pandemic to illumine a new way. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
Now is the time for us to take a hard look in the mirror at our individual, but especially our collective self, to acknowledge that we are not well. We need the disturbing, guiding, healing power of the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.
The lie of supremacy and privilege that are shrouded in the illusion of normalcy are an affront to the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that the first step in or recovery from racism and white privilege is to acknowledge that we are broken, we need healing, and we cannot do it alone. We must do it together and with the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.