Sunday, December 11, 2016

"The Backstory: Misery Seeking Joy"

"The Backstory: Misery Seeking Joy"

Rev. Paul  Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-14

I’ve been noticing a lot of sighing lately. Maybe it’s not happening more than usual; maybe I’m just more attuned to it lately. I hear friends and family sigh. I hear strangers sigh. I even notice myself sigh. Often, I think, sighing is something we don’t notice – our own or others. It’s not like a groan. A groan has voice. A sigh is more like a leak – a simple release of breath, wind, or spirit. Sighing, of course, can arise from pain or pleasure, but either way, there is something melancholy about sighing. There is something sad about sighing. We sigh in response to loss or release – loss of love or opportunity, release of tension or stress. Lovers sigh because the anticipated embrace has been consummated – the waiting is over. But sighing also signals a decision that has been made: at least for a moment, I am choosing to go on, to continue to live, to keep doing the best I can for those I love, to choose life and savor it, even in misery.
Imagine the misery of the Hebrew people in exile in Babylon. The house of their God was in ruins. They had become a servant class. Even their rulers were captive. The text from Isaiah today is an interposition of what was probably a piece of Second Isaiah – written generations later. Second Isaiah was message of hope for the exiles. The relocation of this image of thriving planet and people into First Isaiah was an encouragement from their future that even if disaster and dislocation were looming on the horizon, their loyalty to and observance of God’s ways of shalom – of love and justice – could still lead to a joyous future. Second Isaiah’s litany of misery sounds like this: weak, infirm, fearful – blind, deaf, lame, speechless – dry, burning, thirsty – haunted, treacherous, and unclean. Most of all, dislocation from God feels like being far from home. For some, the greatest misery lies simply in feeling far from home.
Then, imagine what God’s prophetic “school” of Isaiah is saying joy will be like: strong, firm, courageous – visionary, attentive, limber, inspired – torrential, refreshed, quenched – untroubled, fertile, and open. The Hebrew describes the response to the homecoming as an inarticulate ringing cry of gladness, joy, or mirth. In other words, it’s a really big deal, a wonderful upwelling of the spirit, not a simple relief or release. A sigh – even a sigh of pleasure – is not enough. I saw this week that some of the veterans that went to Standing Rock to protect the water protectors knelt before the tribal leaders and begged forgiveness for the misery we have imposed on First Nations peoples over the centuries. When Chief Archambault received the apology and laid hands on the leaders of the veterans, the tribal singers erupted with shrill ululations. The apology and the forgiveness did not erase the atrocities, but they did release an unfettered joy – a joy that will surely be required in the coming days and years.
Ironically, the path of the Dakotas Access Pipeline resembles the highway that Isaiah describes – the holy way that John the Baptizer says to make straight – leveling mountains and hills, raising up valleys, bulldozing everything in its path. It is meant to bring comfort to many in the form of fossil fuels, and profit to a few who already have so much. Though the misery is unintended, the pipeline will bring misery to many today and to future generations. John says that the one to come, the one to follow him, the one for whom we have been waiting, will bring good news to the poor. In this case, the Greek word for poor is ptwcoi. It means destitute ones, wretched ones, miserable ones. It means not just those who are short of change, but those completely bereft of opportunity. It means those who are chronically behind and below. The poor for whom John says the anointed healer will be good news are just like the First Nations people whose rights and culture and livelihoods and sovereignty have been trampled for generations. They are considered to be so low that it doesn’t matter if we carve a scar across their sacred land. The poor for whom John says the anointed healer will be good news are just like the chronically homeless, addicted, and disregarded who we hope to bring in from the cold in our shelter. We are in fact planning to operate the cold weather shelter most of this week beginning tomorrow night, and more volunteers are needed.
Isaiah says that the path that leads to the home that God desires for us – the blossoming, refreshing, protected path – will be reserved only for God’s people. Perhaps that was because the people in captivity had been so miserable because of their status on the bottom rung of Babylonian society and because of their profound longing for home. They wanted to know they would not be followed home by their oppressors.
Now, I ask you, just who are God’s people? Are not all creatures God’s children? I’m convinced that the Anointed Healer – the one whose birth we are preparing to witness again – is the definitive Word that all people are God’s people, regardless of what they profess. I think we have spent too much time worrying about what people think, and not enough time acting according to the example of the Anointed Healer.
When John heard in prison what Jesus had been doing, well, just what had he been doing? According to Matthew, he had been keeping company with the unclean, the very people that Isaiah said could not take the holy way back to the heart of God. Jesus taught them – those considered unclean and unworthy – about the law of love, the rule of compassion, the responsibility of wealth. Jesus healed them – those considered dirty and broken – of demons, shame, lack of vision, inability to hear, and crippling fear. When the followers of John came to ask Jesus if he was the one, he did not simply say yes or no. He said,
“See for yourselves. The blind receive vision, the immobilized move, the falling-apart are whole, those who couldn’t hear now do, and especially, those who are destitute, wretched, miserable have been served with good news.”
The good news that Jesus brings is that the way is open to all.
While we are on the way – Jesus’ path – we know that misery and joy can coexist. We also know that it’s not a one way street. We can rejoice that we are on our way home at the same time we suffer wretched disappointment and defeat. Sometimes there is joy for some and misery for others in the very same occurrence. Take the snow for instance. For some, waking up to blankets of cold, white snow is delightful. For those without a sheltering roof and a warm bed it is probably misery. The Standing Rock water protectors were overjoyed that the Army Corps of Engineers withdrew the permit for the pipeline to be dug under the Missouri River last Sunday. They rejoice in the unprecedented global uprising of indigenous peoples who are coming together in solidarity and sovereignty. But they also knew that there is misery to come. It’s really unlikely that the pipeline – 90% complete – will remain unfinished. In their joy, they are not yet home free.
Many compassionate and justice-seeking followers of Jesus have been thinking and talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the run up to the election last month, and still as we watch the new political regime taking shape in our nation. Bonhoeffer gave courageous and unflinching witness during the rise of Adolf Hitler. Some believe that Bonhoeffer left God’s holy way when he plotted to overthrow the dictator. Like the Baptizer, he spent his last days in prison. But even in the depths of his misery he offered deep insight into the cultivation of joy.
“A sort of joy exists that knows nothing at all of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread; it does not last; it can only numb a person for the moment. The joy of God has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it. What matters is this joy that has overcome. It alone is credible; it alone helps and heals.”[i]
Bonhoeffer went on to say,
“…inwardly we must become very quiet to hear the soft sound of this phrase at all. Joy lives in its quietness and incomprehensibility. This joy is in fact incomprehensible, for the comprehensible never makes for joy.”[ii]
Of the four traditional themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – joy may be the most elusive and fleeting. All four take work to establish and work to maintain, but joy – especially if we equate it with happiness or satisfaction – comes and goes like sunshine and rain. In our Wednesday bible study we ask the question, “What am I called to do, change, be as a result of reflection on this text?” Isaiah lays it out for us as plain as day.
“Strengthen the weak hands. Make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong. Do not fear. Your God is here’”
Emmanuel – God-with-us! And what will happen when we step on that path?
“No traveler, not even fools, will go astray. God’s people will be on their way home with singing. Joy will radiate like a halo. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Beloved, let us be joyful as we travel along God’s holy way.

[i] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Works, vol. 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940–1945 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 377–378.
[ii] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Jana Riess. God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

"The Backstory: Anxiety Seeking Peace"

"The Backstory: Anxiety Seeking Peace"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 4, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

In that first year of transition from my calling as an architect to my calling as a pastor – both callings holy I believe – I experienced a lot of anxiety. I really wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into – sometimes I’m still not. That anxiety erupted in various ways – one of which was anger. Anger certainly wasn’t new to me. But as I entered the unknown, it would creep up on me unexpectedly seizing me by the throat, causing my vision to blur, cutting short my breath, and clouding my judgment. It was just like being strangled, and no wonder. The origin of our word anxious comes from the Greek word “to strangle.” It got bad enough that I attended Emotions Anonymous for a time – a 12 step recovery group for those whose emotions – especially rage – seize control of our lives. During that time, my clergy colleagues and supervisors were talking about cultivating a “non-anxious presence.” For a while I began to understand anxiety as a purely evil thing – something to be controlled, hidden away, if possible surgically removed. As I look back now, that is a false peace. That is the peace of empires – the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, the Pax Americana. That is the peace that is established and enforced through violence, oppression, privilege, and accusation. That is the peace that executed Jesus of Nazareth – the one whom we follow and call the Prince of Peace.
More recently, I began to study a way of understanding conflict and dysfunctional relationships called Family Systems. This work suggests that anxiety is actually the energy field of relationships – all relationships. It’s like the heat that arises from two molecules that bump or rub up against each other. Anxiety wants to flow. It is not a bad thing unless it is bottled up – enough of it can fester, rot, or explode. Or it can fuse together, and prevent the natural growth and development between any two beings. Complex systems, such as families, congregations, or nations, seek stasis – or at least dynamic balance. The problem is that each component in a system – each being – is constantly changing and growing, however imperceptibly. Anxiety runs amok when the balance is upset or we try to freeze the system in place. Anxiety wants to flow – like water.
The first step in cultivating “non-anxious presence” is to know yourself deeply – a constant task for a living, growing being. It requires knowing your FOOI – your family of origin issues, and how they tend to play out generation after generation. When we feel our anxiety rising, it’s time to ask ourselves, what of my deep or muddy past is getting churned up by this person or that event. What serpent from my childhood is being evoked or awakened. When we know what is happening, we can face it, acknowledge it, and if necessary, set it aside. More likely, we will need to deal with it – or there will be no peace.
This systemic process can play out on many different scales – from the molecular to our personal interior life, from the planetary web of life to the cosmos. In fact, the word “cosmos” means “system.” I’ll admit that my first impulse is almost always to skew to the scale of the community, the culture, or the cosmos when I am seeking meaning in scripture, tradition, reason, or experience. I generally tend to see and hear the communal context and message. So, for instance, as we read Isaiah, my thoughts go first to the implications of our life together, our place and responsibility in the global context, the realization or the thwarting of the common good. I think it’s the liberal impulse in a way – to seek the common good. This is especially true when it comes to applying my understanding of the Gospel.
For several years during my childhood, my dad, a United Methodist pastor also, was a campus minister. Those were the days of the Viet Nam war, and he was actively engaged in encouraging the Christian students he worked with to seek Conscientious Objector status. I grew up marching for peace. It formed me deeply as an unconditional pacifist. I could not even bear to hold a hunting rifle, and declined invitations to go pheasant or deer hunting – even with a bow.
On the surface, despite the perverse logic of more than one historic theologian, I do not believe in “just war” – partly because it is never just war. There are always unintended consequences and residual side-effects. In one way, I believe that Constantine was right when he declined to be baptized until his deathbed. He knew that war and following Jesus are mutually incompatible. Let me give you just a brief review of the context of what is called First Isaiah, chapters 1-39. “The context for this oracle is the difficult period of tensions around the Syro-Ephraimitic war in 733 BCE, when the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, Ahaz refused (in those days rulers sometimes actually listened to prophets); but then, instead of joining the rebel alliance, he called on Assyria to intervene. They did so with devastating impact, eventually leading to the destruction of the Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom in 721. Isaiah objected to this dangerous move by Ahaz, but he was hopeful that the young Hezekiah who would follow Ahaz might be the righteous Davidic ruler long hoped for. ”[i] Do you hear echoes of our modern predicament? On the literal political stage as well as in the metaphorical kingdoms of American politics, these systems of conflict persist.
The peace that Isaiah paints in this allegory known as the Peaceable Kingdom does not jive with reality any more that the mountain of Adonai’s house as the highest mountain on earth. It would absolutely defy the natural order. Thus, it is not meant to be a prediction that suddenly natural predators would begin to coexist without consuming their natural prey. So we could interpret this as an allegory referring to different nations. Some are the wolves, others are the lambs. Some are the leopards, and some are the baby goats. But that picture doesn’t jive with reality either. After all, when it comes to nations, there are usually just a few lions, and many kittens. Some of the kittens grow up to be lions. Others end up as lunch.
A deeper look takes us to the interior realm. I’d guess that you’ve heard the tale about the two wolves.
An old Cherokee is teaching a grandchild about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the child. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – made of anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” The grandparent continued, “The other is good – made of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandchild thought about it for a time and then asked this question. “Which wolf will win?” The Old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The predators and the prey are inside of us. And I’m pretty sure that each of us has at one time been predator, and at another been prey. Just think for a moment about a time when you have been predator, and a time when you have been prey.
If we plumb the depths even further, I am convinced that we come to the reservoir of peace that underlies all beings. The boundary between individual and corporate, between personal and public, between spiritual and physical, between inner and outer, breaks down. That barrier is artificial – if we reach deep enough into the well of the soul, we tap into a common reservoir of being – the depths of God’s love. Beloved, that is where we need to draw our peace in this time of anxiety. Our deepest anxiety comes from the unknown. That’s why we cling so dearly to certainty. But in Jesus Christ, we have already encountered and defeated the ultimate unknown. In our continuous and ongoing baptism, we have died and been raised in the Anointed One. The font is front and center one again. This is not to say that baptism is comfortable or easy – especially not the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire that John foretells.
Friends, today I am anxious about my friend Kelly Dahman-Oeth, who is at Standing Rock today. Kelly is the pastor of Ronald UMC in Shoreline. He’s anxious too. And right now he’s probably cold and little hungry. But Kelly reports that today he is more alive than he can ever remember being. That reservoir of peace is pouring into his heart that has been broken open by his anxiety for the First Nations people and their land.
I’m also anxious about the next few nights of sub–freezing temperatures. And so, together with other faith communities on the island we are hosting a shelter here in our education wing Monday through Thursday nights. After that we will regroup and see what needs to come next. I’m anxious because there are many unknowns. But we can tap into that deep well of peace and move ahead knowing that God has called us to be in solidarity with the widow, orphan, and stranger – the cold, the hungry, and those who are in the captivity of poverty.
Sometimes I’m anxious about the future of the church. We face great unknown. But it is at times like these when we can singly or collectively respond to the anxiety of the world, drawing from our deep well of peace that I am confident of our significance and future. Who else would respond? Perhaps someone. Who else has the resources? Perhaps others have more. But it is clear to me that we have been called through our relationships, our money, our wellness, our time and place, and most of all our truth, to step in to the stream – into the living waters – into the death and new life of baptism.
Beloved, as much as we would like to, we ought not to be so quick to cast aside our anxiety. In fact, I think Advent is the perfect time to investigate and learn from our anxiety. Anxiety has a role to play in our search for peace – the peace that the Celts called the deep peace of the running wave. God is about to do a new thing. We don’t fully know what or when, and thus we face the unknown. May your Advent be unsettling. Make it shake your foundations. May you know what deeply matters. May it cause you to seek the deeper peace, the peace that is not simply the absence of conflict, but the presence of reconciliation and trust. May you know yourself deeply, so deeply that you tap into that Being that so perfectly express the source of all being – that Being whose peace we know in the birth of a Holy Child.

[i] Bruce C. Birch, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, V. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 27.

"The Backstory: Despair Seeking Hope"

"The Backstory: Despair Seeking Hope"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
November 27, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
It seems that no matter the time or place, no matter the century or continent, we humans are looking for a strong man to get us out of trouble. It doesn’t matter if the trouble is of our own making, or was imposed upon us. That “strong man” may or may not have our best interests at heart. And we may even harbor the idea that we can be that “strong man” for ourselves. Please excuse the sexist reference to the “strong man” – women can be the strong “man” too. I’m not passing judgement right now. I’m just observing. Many factors shape the kind of “strong man” – the “anointed savior” – that we seek. The first Christians – the followers of the “The Way” – proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth is that anointed savior – literally the one that is clearly designated to heal us – to heal our predicament – to set things right – to bring about the peaceable kin-dom.
Of course, those first Christians did not come to know or learn of the anointed savior through the Gospels, or through the teaching of the church, or through the preaching of pastors and theologians. All they had was the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, and the cultural milieu and cultural historical context in which they lived – and Jesus, of course. They had the real deal. But how did they know he was the real deal without the Gospels? Some scholars have called the book of Isaiah the fifth gospel. Some theologians have even claimed that without the four canonical gospels, Isaiah could tell us everything we need to know for our salvation.
This Advent I’ll be using Isaiah as a lens to examine some of what shapes our expectations for the anointed savior – the Christ Jesus – whom we call Emmanuel; God-with-us. Isaiah is comprised of three main parts, artfully sewn together, written over the course of at least two centuries. Scholars refer to chapters 1-39 as First Isaiah, chapters 40-55 as Second Isaiah, and chapters 56-65 as Third Isaiah. All of the prophetic readings for Advent this year are drawn from First Isaiah. It was written in the 8th century before the Common Era, generations before the exile in Babylon. It was a time of great despair, anxiety, misery, and separation amongst the covenant people – but perhaps not as great as the despair, anxiety, misery, and separation they would face later when they were taken into captivity. The Hebrew nation, which thought of itself as a contender for greatness among nations – a mythos embodied in the characters of David and Solomon, had long since broken into two kingdoms. Neither of them had the strength or resources to outweigh the true empires that flanked them. They were like two siblings, back to back, not fully trusting each other, each facing great danger.
They were a divided nation not only in governance, but also economically. The northern kingdom, Israel, encompassed fertile plains, hills, and valleys. It was agrarian, and thus a strategic target for conquering armies. The southern kingdom, Judah or Judea, was mostly arid high ground. It revolved around Jerusalem, the site of Solomon’s temple, and home to the Ark of the Covenant. Its “mountaintop” location could also be a tactical asset in times of war as well as times of worship. Each kingdom laid claim to legitimacy as successor to David. Each laid claim to greater faithfulness to the covenant.
Isaiah’s people faced the expansion of the Assyrian Empire. The northern kingdom sought to bring the southern kingdom into an alliance in order to resist Assyrian expansion. The pressing issue of the day was whether or not to gear up for war. Isaiah unequivocally declares God’s disapproval of this plan. Isaiah’s message was this: God will empower a leader who does not seek the idolatry of war, but instead who seeks to be faithful to God as God is faithful to the covenant people. In other words, do not succumb to despair, do not put your faith in the hands of the “strong man” – but seek your hope in God.
To get the full picture of Isaiah’s prophecy, we need to see the whole book, and more. God’s message through the sewn together book of Isaiah is expansive and poetic. But biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that in its three segments, we do not see the whole story that takes us from despair to hope, from anxiety to peace, from misery to joy, and from separation to love. Brueggemann suggests that First Isaiah is primarily about recording the profound sense of loss that the covenant people share in their division, even as it records the independent success of the southern kingdom in repelling the advance of Assyria. Second Isaiah is a picture of hope – a vision of what lays ahead for those who are faithful to God, and was written centuries later at a time when Judah faced a new expansive threat from the north – Babylon. Third Isaiah is a great hymn of assurance that God will always be faithful, and desires thriving for all nations, all creation. What Brueggemann suggests is missing in this narrative tapestry is grief. He suggests that we need to read Lamentations after First Isaiah, after our loss, before moving on to hope.
Despair – or an aspect of despair – is the sense that things fall apart despite our best intentions. We somehow know that the “strong man” is not going to be able to “fix” our predicament.
Things fall apart.
There is disunity.
Danger lurks nearby.
Despair literally means a loss of spirit. In the English language it replaced the older word “wanhope.” Wanhope connotes feeble hope or hope spread too thinly. The Hebrew word that we translate as despair is ruah kehā – or spirit of fainting. There is a sense in our loss, whatever it may be, that we are about to faint. We do not have the energy to go on. We may be tempted just to collapse to the ground where we stand and allow our grief to rush over us, to overwhelm us, to drown us. It seems to describe a loss of energy, a loss of will. In contrast, Isaiah’s word for hope really means “to look to.” In other words, hope is a matter of vision, not dependent on whatever muck or mire we stand in, but rather where we set our sights. Hope is a matter of perspective or a habit of seeing that allows us to breathe even in stale air.
There is trouble in the Isaiah text. The main trouble is this:
Adversaries loom.
Darker days seem immanent.
The nation is divided, lacking allies, and unprepared.
Despite the loss they have experienced, or perhaps the loss they are anticipating, Isaiah warns, “Hold on! Do not buy into false trust or false promises.”
There is trouble today. Among many troubles, one is parallel to First Isaiah’s predicament:
Our nation is divided.
Adversaries loom.
Darker days seem immanent.
The nation is divided, lacking allies, and unprepared.
We find ourselves at a loss – perhaps we feel nostalgic for a time in the past that never actually existed. We find ourselves trying to satisfy our deepest yearnings with material comforts or extreme experiences. Isaiah warns, “Hold on! Do not buy into false trust or false promises.”
But there is also grace in the text. Isaiah tells us that “in the days to come” our attention will no longer be diverted by distractions. In the days to come – in other words, within time and place – not in some distant heaven, but in the days to come – holy ground is high ground. We can speak of high ground literally – higher ground is strategically advantageous. We can speak of high ground ethically as well. We can choose the morally higher ground, from whence we can see better and farther. Isaiah says that many peoples will turn their focus from the distractions to the vision of wholeness and justice that radiate from God’s high place, so that we can learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. Those who seek God’s instruction and seek to walk in God’s ways do not focus primarily on the present existential quagmire in such a way as to lose sight of God’s way of peace-making, peace-saying, peace-acting.
Isaiah tells us, God will judge between the nations – in other words, God will set things right. And the sign of God’s judgment will be whether or not we disarm. To disarm is to hope. This hope is predictive, not prescriptive. It doesn’t match the reality on the ground. Hope is not certainty, but seeing beyond and choosing God’s path. Hope is an act of will. In hope, we envision God’s way and we lean into it – live into it. Whatever has been a tool of despair, anxiety, misery, or separation – in other words, whatever has been weaponized – we must reclaim and reshape as a tool of life – for cultivation and harvest.
There is also grace for today that radiates from the prophet’s vision:
Make allies, but not with war-mongers. Make allies with peace-makers.
Align with power, but not with the powers of despair, anxiety, misery, and separation. Align with the seemingly powerless who hold the moral higher ground – the holy ground. They may be the children, the homeless, the meek, the gentle, the oppressed, the water protectors, the “other” – these have tremendous spirit-power. There is power in walking in God’s light right now, one step at a time.
Take the energy and resources that have been invested in division and destruction. Invest them in cultivating life, in harvesting love. I’m thinking of Heifer Project, Mary’s Place, Bread for the World, Children’s Defense Fund, UMCOR, the Food Bank.
Cultivate hope – not some rosy colored version of wishing for the best, but through the investment of your relationships, your prophetic truth, your wellness, gracious leadership, time and place, and money. Cultivating hope is work – it’s farm labor. It’s daily rising at dawn and working past sunset everyday planting, tending, and harvesting hope.
Hope is an action word.
At the Interfaith Evening of Gratitude this past Tuesday that was held right here in our sanctuary, the Free Range Folk Choir sang an amazing African song punctuated by three drum solos. It was an Uhuru song – or freedom song. And although freedom and hope are not the same, they are twin siblings – each seeks and needs the other. The idea of the song is something like this: Each drum solo represents striving for freedom. For those who have been oppressed, pressed-down, robbed, depressed, and are in despair, they must strive for their freedom. But that struggle only brings them back to where they were before. Then they must strive for more – to advance their freedom. But even then, they must press on or their freedom will be taken. Hope, I believe, is the same. For any who are lost or have lost, they must envision God’s wholeness, to see it in the eye of the heart as actualized. For any who have seen God’s hope, they must reach for it. For any who have reached God’s hope, they must share it.
Do not hope in the strong man. Hope in the one who came to us as a powerless, immigrant, fugitive infant. Hope in the one who poured himself out from the cradle to the cross.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"This Will Give You an Opportunity to Testify"

"This Will Give You an Opportunity to Testify"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
November 13, 2016

I feel compelled to explain the image on the cover of the bulletin today. You see, I was going to make an extended analogy between the Holy Currency of Money and a form of currency on the Island of Yap in Micronesia known as Rai — large, circular disks with a hole in the middle carved out of limestone and used as coins. The size of the stones varies widely: the largest are 12 ft in diameter, 1.5 ft thick and weigh 4 ½ tons. Look it up for yourself and let me know what metaphorical value you see in comparing the Rai of Yap with the Holy Currency of money. As it turns out, there are more important things to talk about today. I have really struggled with this, because frankly, our immediate and long term financial picture is not good. But I am going to set that aside just now, because it really doesn’t matter if the institution of our church is not fundamentally an agent of the good news of God’s universal and unconditional love in the world – if we are not an agent of radical transformation.
I see a connection between the money stones and the temple stones, not one of which will be left upon another. Earthquakes and famines and plagues have come to pass, signs and omens have appeared in our skies. Our current political landscape is a vivid expression of the old things that pass away and the new creation announced by the prophets. Can you see it? Can you hear it? The works of our hands not only pass away, but they should pass away when they become too far removed from our values. Our institutions should be deconstructed when they no longer serve their root purpose – which in the case of the church is the unconditional love and compassionate justice Jesus calls us to seek and to share. That is a radical message we have been given to testify. And by radical, I do not necessarily mean “leftist” – the root meaning of the word radical is root!
The main thing I see in common between Isaiah, Luke, and our revelatory times is radical transformation. Radical transformation is what supporters of Donald Trump claim to seek. Any change is said to be better than the status quo. And one of the overarching trends of our time is to abandon or overthrow the institutions that have lost touch with the world as it is. The habits of heart we have cultivated cause us to retreat into actual and virtual echo chambers, in which we only see and hear those who share our chosen identities. No one can deny that the losing party lost touch with reality on the ground. Sadly, I think the change agent that has been lifted up will bring about change that is detrimental to nearly all – and certainly regressive to the common good. And I among many am not willing to allow accusation, greed, violence, hierarchy, and privilege to become further normalized than it already was.
This will give you an opportunity to testify.
Radical transformation is what Isaiah saw coming. He saw in mutual fidelity between God and the covenant people the overturning of an empire that was cruel and corrupt – that sought and achieved security and stability and wealth at the cost of entire populations and cultures. What he saw coming – what he yearned for for his people was thriving and just. Isaiah saw the possibility – more than possibility – he saw God’s desire and mandate, for all to enjoy the fruits of their labor, the common good.
Radical transformation is what Luke saw coming. He saw the Pax Romana, the shallow peace established and maintained through systemic violence, slavery, and oppression, and the Jerusalem Temple cult as its local surrogate, as an institution that had to come down. By the time Luke wrote, of course, the Jerusalem Temple had come down, and the empire was mired in obscenity and blood-soaked in corruption. Luke saw, in the radical love unfolding among the egalitarian first followers of the Way that Jesus taught, the possibility – more than the possibility – he saw God’s mandate and desire for the healing of the soul of humanity.
Jesus surely carried the prophet Isaiah in his back pocket. And Luke’s testimony to Jesus surely bears this out. It is laden with both direct and implied references to Isaiah’s vision of God’s presence and fidelity to creation. And if you take the Gospel of Luke and fold it in half, Jesus’ commitment at his baptism to repent – to turn the world around, and his direct quotation of Isaiah as his mission statement at the commencement of his public ministry – lines up just about exactly with this vision of human institutions overturned and the opportunity to testify to God’s universal love. This is called chiastic structure, and it is a powerful tool in understanding the intended meaning of biblical literature. Baptism and radical transformation belong together. Jesus’ mandate, of forgiveness, generosity, healing, inclusion, and justice, belongs together with overturning the institutions of accusation, greed, violence, hierarchy, and privilege.
The origins of the Temple were well meaning and laudable. The Tabernacle was a tent that God ordained to Moses. It was meant as a way to carry our identity and values with us wherever we go. It came with the reminder that God provides what we need for each day, and that what truly matters cannot be hoarded or even represented by stone currency or stone temples. Over time, gold and bronze, marble and ivory accrued to the tabernacle, which became stationary, and which became captive to the principalities powers and of the world. Patterns and practices and privileges rendered the temple awe-inspiring and also weighed it down. Jesus’ project – his mission – was to shake loose God’s intentions for humanity from the security and control of the institution.
The origins of the “American Experiment” were well meaning and laudable despite being rooted in the soil from which also sprung the idea of Whiteness and the myth of American exceptionalism. “Liberty” and “justice for all” are unimpeachable values, unless all does not really mean all. Because we, mostly innocently, have stumbled into systemic racism, we tend to think of it simply as business as usual. We are often blind to reality, if not willfully ignorant. Sometimes through traumatic experience or through fierce intentional exposure, we can dislodge our ingrained perspective and see for a moment with another’s perspective. Reading Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me has done that for me – it has become “Gospel” for me.
A slight majority of the American electorate has experienced a devastating blow. I beg your forbearance if you are among those who are delighted. But I will not apologize. This week we have seen a fluorescence of response, a dawning realization, and a rising tide of fear as to what will come next and over the next four and more years. Various forms of perseverance have been proposed – what Luke’s Gospel calls “endurance.” Resistance has been proposed – taking the stones that have been thrown down in the ruin of our institutionalized expectations and using them to build barricades in the streets. Mostly I have been encouraged – if you can imagine this as encouragement – by voices which have advocated doubling down on acts of solidarity and compassion, and the dismantling and redistribution of privilege.
My friend Nathan Hollifield, pastor at Fircrest UMC in Tacoma, made reference to the baptismal covenant on Friday in his response to the election. He said, “No matter what your political persuasion is – Tuesday's election came as a shock. Many of us are deeply troubled and those on the receiving end of Trumpism’s most vicious and vile attacks (Muslims, immigrants, indigenous peoples, people of color, disabled persons, and Creation itself) are experiencing a palpable and warranted fear. What is my Church's response? The answer, if we are bold enough to find it there, is found in our baptism vows. We are the ones called to:
“… renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our [complicity in them]…; [to] accept the freedom and power that God gives [each of us] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves….”[i]
Nathan continued, “We are called to do this no matter who is President and no matter who we voted for. If you aren't on the side of the poor you aren't a follower of Jesus of the New Testament. We now, especially in light of the threat presented, must place ourselves at the epicenter of the struggle. We must keep our eyes open, organize, and remain vigilant so that we are not coerced into [nationalistic] delusions.
“There will be calls to link arms with the oppressors and sing “kumbaya.” Well Christians, now is not the time for wishy washy camp songs. Now is the time for “We Shall Not Be Moved!” Now more than ever we need to turn to the spirituality and leadership of the oppressed….”
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”[ii]
And here I paraphrase our missionary photojournalist Paul Jeffrey who paraphrased Niemöller.
“When they come for the journalist, I am a journalist.
When they come for the environment, I am a tree.
When they come for the refugee, I am a refugee.
When they come for the Mexican, soy Mexicano.
When they come for the Muslim, I am a Muslim.
When they come for the woman, I am a woman.
[When they come for the queer, I am queer.]”
What a week.
What a cataclysmic week.
Many people I know and care about are hurting and afraid. Some are rejoicing, but for some of them, their celebration seems to come at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized. Hateful bigoted behavior has become brazen. And I believe worse is yet to come. The magnitude of the implications and consequences of our elections are staggering. And yet, I want to believe with Secretary Clinton that our best days as a nation are yet to come. The time now is not to withdraw, but to engage. This will give you an opportunity to testify.
We follow the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Love, the Giver of Grace.
Along with many, I have been struggling this week to discern an effective response – a radically transformative action. I humbly offer two among many.
First, make it institutional. Find an organization with a proven track record of effectiveness that works on behalf of a community or a cause that is now even further at risk because of the stated intentions of the incoming administration and congress – for instance, Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Add it to the list of organizations to which you contribute financially or through volunteer work. That might even be your church.
This will give you an opportunity to testify.
Second, make it personal. Find a partner. Make it someone you really deeply trust. Covenant with each other to call each other out on even the slightest statement or action of bigotry. It’s a really hard thing to do, even with someone you love. When you have practiced with each other, extend the circle. When you are together, call it when you see it. Do it gently and lovingly. Be sure not to embarrass the speaker or actor. Drop a pebble in the water and watch the rings of compassion and grace expand.
This will give you an opportunity to testify.

[i] The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 34.
[ii] The Holocaust Encyclopedia (

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

3 Questions - #1: Who Are You? #2: What Are You Doing? #3: Where Are You Going?

Rev. Paul Mitchell
July 10, 2016

There are two different occasions that are considered by pastors to be the hardest on which to preach. One is the pastor’s first Sunday. The temptation is to try to get it all in at once – to demonstrate the prowess of the pastor and perhaps justify her or his presence. The other is on the Sunday after a significant traumatic event in the life of the congregation or the world. So here we are on my first Sunday with you following one of the most convulsively violent weeks I can remember. At our clergy transitions workshop last month, our bishop shared a story that he loves to tell.
“A monk was traveling back to his monastery. As he crossed an open field, he was suddenly confronted by a fierce Samurai warrior. With his hand menacingly poised above the hilt of his sword, the warrior blocks the monk’s path, and asks three questions in staccato fashion. “Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going?” Somewhat stunned by this unexpected turn of events, the monk regains his composure and responds with a question of his own. “How much does your shogun pay you to stand guard here and ask these questions of travelers?” The samurai, slightly taken aback by the monk’s question, replies, “Two bags of rice each month.” The monk smiles and says to the samurai, “I will pay you three bags of rice each month, if you ask me these same three questions every day.”[i]
“Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going?” These first three weeks with you I plan to address these questions one at a time – probably not definitively, once and for all, but by way of introduction. They are the questions of identity, mission, and vision. Every church, every follower of Jesus, indeed every person needs to wrestle with these questions – thus the high value that the monk places in them. I’m guessing we will come back to these questions again and again as we struggle with our relevance and vitality as individuals and as an organization.
I’m guessing that at least a few of you are here today largely because you want to ask me the question – in one way or another – “Who are you, Pastor Paul?” I could bore you or entertain you with a list of facts and accomplishments, shortcomings and failures, hopes and regrets. All of those things would tell you something about me. But they probably wouldn’t help you a whole lot to know who I am. I’m sure that those stories will tumble out as time goes on. Likewise, people have told me many things about you. To name them would be to invite you to nod in agreement and recognition, or to fold your arms in dissent and protest. Mostly, what I have been told about you is good – so don’t worry. And some of the things I have been told about you may not be flattering – but also don’t worry.
So I have a cloud of information about you that has been helpfully offered to me – some of it contradictory. I intend to keep that cloud off to the side as I seek to know who you are. A new pastor is an opportunity to start a new relationship, choosing to become more like who you are. One hopeful sign that I have been given is that you have been recovering in recent years from the traumatic discovery that you – as a congregation – were not who you thought you were. Part of that recovery process has been to admit to yourself that you do not need to become someone that you are not, but to become ever more of who you are. That’s a good path to be on, and I rejoice in joining you on that path.
Now, I am a planner. I need a plan. Once I have established a plan, I can usually be nimble and adaptive. Having a plan helps me to think through what’s important to me – which in turn helps me to respond to change – either to accept or to resist contingencies as they arise. So I have a plan for the first six months of worship. I’ll share more about that next week when I talk about the second question, “What are you doing?” But I had a plan for these first three weeks, and it’s uncanny how well it aligned with the Gospel texts from the revised common lectionary – which I will typically follow as Pastor Kathy did. It’s also uncanny how the lectionary always seems to hold some good news for today. Let me say that the phrase “good news” can be understood in many ways. For me, “good” does not always mean pleasant or comfortable. Instead, I take it to mean “fitting” or “appropriate” for the time and place in which we find ourselves.
My plan for today was to start off easily with pleasant and comfortable good news. However, as you get to know me, you will know that it’s hard for me not to name the elephant in the room once I have seen or smelled or bumped into it. It was not my plan to start off talking about racism, violence, and the devastation of our little blue marble in space. And yet, in order to keep the main thing the main thing, I must. After all, do we not follow the Inclusive Other – the Prince of Peace – the Risen Gardener? This past week has been a difficult week for us in many ways – following many difficult weeks. Black men have been killed by police officers. Police officers have been killed by snipers. It seems to come so fast that we cannot even breathe between incidents. I have been nauseated, sleepless, and distressed. If the “Good News” is not good news – then what is it?
So, today, we have heard the “good news” through the parable of the good neighbor – the fitting or appropriate neighbor. It is probably one of the most well-known parables, and we have heard it preached time and again. We love it, because none of us imagines our self passing by the wounded victim on the side of the road. I’m sure that every single one of you can tell me what it means. And yet, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of a few things.
For instance, when we think of the story, we often overlook that it is meant by Luke to be Jesus’ explanation of what is required to inherit eternal life. The lawyer’s succinct interpretation of the Law of the Covenant is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” It all boils down to that. Simple enough, right? Easy? No! Despite our profession as followers of Jesus, we cross over to the other side. With genuine warmth and understanding, I dare say that there are a number of residents on the island who have crossed over to the other side in order to avoid coming too close to those who are lying on the side of the road – perhaps even some of you. Don’t get me wrong. I too have crossed over roads or waters to avoid the unpleasant task of being a fitting or appropriate neighbor.
We think of the neighbor as being somehow someone who is like us – someone who we know, who shares our circumstances, who lives next door, who would do the same for us. And yet Jesus chooses to illustrate mercy through the foreigner who is understood by Judeans and Galileans as apostate, vile, and uncleanfundamentally different. And that mercy is embodied in someone who would most likely be rejected, if not spat upon, by the man whom he aids. The Greek word translated as “mercy” means “the emotion roused by undeserved affliction in others, and containing an element of fear as well as mercy.”[ii] The Hebrew word it translates “denotes an attitude arising out of mutual relationship, e.g., between relatives, hosts and guests … those in covenant relation. It is an act rather than a disposition, with trust as the basis….”[iii]
In other words, Jesus is saying that the “other” – the stranger who adheres to different ways – is a partner to be trusted, without expectation of reward, in establishing the Beloved Community. Neighbors are good who see each other and do not pass by on the other side. Do you hear that this means reciprocity? If means looking into the eyes of the other and seeing the reflection of yourself. It is the basis of identity – of knowing the answer to the question, “Who are you?”
Beloved – I hope you don’t mind if I call you that – here is the question, “Who are you as followers of Jesus?” – as seekers of the eternal life that I would call the Beloved Community? We have years to find out if the bishop and cabinet prove to be right in sending me here, and yet it is an urgent question. It will take a while for the question to become “Who are we?” and for the “we” of that question to expand to include neighbors whom we might fear. Furthermore, it is our urgent business to understand the role we each and together play in perpetuating the systems of oppression that lead to terrorism, violence, and the degradation of creation.
Beloved, we have work to do – together. It’s hard work, but it’s good work. It’s the work of conversion. It’s the work of reconciliation. It’s the work of compassion. It’s our work as followers of the one who worked and walked and wept with us. Let’s get started.

[i] James Havin and Madeline Mobrearty, Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, 76.
[ii] Geoffrey W. Bromley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testatment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 222.
[iii] Ibid.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Dancing with God

Guest Preacher: Theresa Henson, M.A.

One of my favorite themes of the New Testament is the theme of authority. The Old Testament is full of kings and queens and laws for the development of the the nation of Israel. But in the New Testament we have this new idea of authority that emerges with the person of Jesus and also with the growth of leadership in his disciples and apostles.

In Matthew (7:29) we get this amazing description of Jesus: “he taught with real authority — quite unlike their teachers of religious law.” What does that mean? It sounds so mysterious. This authority is not coming from any legal or societal means, but somewhere else. It’s something different.

As I have reflected upon this, I was led to the image of a mother who looks up and sees her child wandering into the road and there is a car coming. Suddenly, with a voice and volume that has never emerged from her, she bellows from her depths for that child to get out of the road. And then suddenly, with a speed and strength she has never experienced she rushes to snatch that child from danger. She acts instinctively, quickly.

Where did her authority come from? She didn’t go through some school program that gives you a certificate to yell at your kid in danger. No appointed official gave her permission, or commission to respond the way she does. She did not go through some certified physical training program to develop the strength and agility to move the way she does. Where does her authority come from?

Love. It comes from love. And this is also the difference for Jesus. He knows his tradition, he knows the scriptures, he knows his people. But ultimately his authority comes from love and he we see him advancing in his ministry to the people with the same passion of a mother who rushes to remove her child from danger. He is urgent and he is not wasting time.

I imagine that each of you has a story of exceeding your own capacities for someone you love. Perhaps there was a crisis, a situation of danger in which suddenly you just knew in your bones how to move and act. Or perhaps you have an experience of knowing something important that there was no way of you knowing on any practical level.

You see, this is the thing about love: at the very core of it, it engages all these other things: wisdom, strength, inspiration, perseverance — in ways that exceed our cognitive awareness. I think parents do this on a daily basis for their children. Exceeding what they had previously understood as limits of their energy, patience, sleep requirements…for their children. Artists, writers, choreographers create works of beauty from love — a love that perseveres, inspires, and guides toward the realization of some beautiful work that did not exist before.

The Apostle Paul, in what I believe to be his best inspired-by-love moment writes about love…”Love is patient, love is kind”, he says and goes on. He then concludes: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Why is the greatest love? Because real love actually encompasses and expresses faith and hope and so much more. 

When we live and move from this love, we are dancing with God. We are creating a choreography that is so much greater than we would create on our own. We are led in ways that affirm life and express beauty for ourselves and others.

In today’s reading from Luke, we see what I like to call the pre-Pentecost. Jesus is sending his disciples out in ministry for the first time. He believes they are ready. 

Yet he sends them out with nothing, absolutely undefended. “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves,” he says. Why would Jesus do this to his beloved disciples? Is he putting them in danger? Because it is indeed dangerous out there. They could be killed by bandits or the Romans, conscripted to slavery. Travel is especially dangerous in this age. Yet he gives them no weapon to protect themselves. He even says take no wallet or shoes. Why is he doing this? Because Jesus knows that unless they go out with with nothing, no defenses as they understand in human terms, no constructs of the ego granting them authority to do so — they will never experience dancing with God.

“Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6)

They will never open themselves up enough to know what God is doing through them. And then they will preclude themselves from ever truly witnessing firsthand the marvels of entering every moment in faith and then watching God work. They will preclude themselves of knowing the deep joy of this beautiful dance, this beautiful adventure with God.

Jesus only gives them a few simple guidelines. All you carry with you is a heart of peace and the intention to share peace with everyone you encounter. This peace cannot be lost to you. If someone doesn’t want your peace, it is no loss to you. God gave us free will and we respect people’s right to chose. You however, will receive what is offered to you. Share hospitality. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and receive graciously. You see, this is how God will meet your needs. Through your humility and receptivity and focus. Be only about God’s work: healing and affirming the kingdom of God, the realm of love. 

There is something about deep, real love that invokes wisdom, long-seeing vision, and unprecedented strength. And there is something about being loved that does the same. In the presence of someone truly loving us, we become more than we thought we were. In the context of being truly loved, we learn and grow up. We are each loved this way. So, no, Jesus is not sending his disciples out to danger, he is sending them out in love. He loves them and knows they walk surrounded with the love of God. And as they go out loving and being loved, they come into cadence with the universe. They are dancing with God.

You see, being on purpose, being in love, is it’s own kind of protection. It is a mystical truth that is lost on many. Doors open, the way is made clear, our timing becomes more elegant and appropriate. It is also real authentic, authority. The disciples come back changed people. They have exceeded their understanding of their own capacities. “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” They are amazed. 

But Jesus cautions them: don’t get hung up on the fact that “spirits submit to you.” Remember it’s not just about you. It’s about what you and God, what love, are doing together. What he is saying is: Don’t get off the dance floor! Focus on this beautiful dance that is happening. Stay out there and keep dancing with God. Because out there is where the fun is, the beauty, the transformation, the adventure, the delight and amazement.

Where are you being called in your life? Perhaps there are situations, conversations, where you are being called to drop your defenses and step forward with a heart of peace and trust that God is working? Say yes. How do we know God is great if we haven’t allowed absolute love to lead us across the dance floor? How do we know what we are ourselves are capable of if we don’t go on that adventure God has guided us to take through the dreams planted in our hearts? The German writer Goethe said: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” Goethe knew that our courage, our faith, invokes a response from the world around us, a synchronicity, a choreography of partnership.

Yes we are asked to believe but God also wants to show us what our faith can do. We can become practiced, experienced in faith. How will we know how good and wonderful people are if we don’t allow ourselves to receive their kindness and hospitality? If we stay in our own small, isolated, defended worlds? That even the people who may choose to decline us kindness are incidental in the larger reality of love.

We always have the same invitation. And the more we live into this dance, the more we grow in trust, in faith. We are not asked to believe alone. We can enter new, even challenging situations with nothing but peace in our hearts knowing God is with us and God will guide. As God places more responsibility in our hands, more authority, we remain in that deep, reflexive, deeply creative call of love that shows us what to do, how to lead, how to be agents of healing.

So, brothers and sisters: take the adventure with God! Lean into the mystery. Say yes to the invitation to dance. Drop your bags and walk freely out to the dance floor. I have no idea what it will look like, but I promise you it will be good.

Let us pray.

Dear God,
Thank you for the invitation to dance,
to be delighted and amazed,
and to be more beautiful expressions
of your power, healing, and goodness.
We say yes.
We say yes.