"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.