Those Violent Verses in Psalm 139

Sermon for Pentecost 7             July 19, 2020

images-1I was all primed to talk about the three parables in our gospel reading today. But for some reason, the psalm kept calling to me. That’s not too surprising; it is one of my favorite psalms. Still, every time I started to think about the parables, I got stuck. Or rather, my head was engaged, but my heart wasn’t in it. Psalm 139 beckoned. Don’t get me wrong; the parables are super important for understanding what Jesus was trying to convey to us about living in the realm of God and how we, as the church, convey that to our community and world. But that sermon will have to wait for another day. Today, I’m drawn to this heart-felt expression by the psalmist; and I’m thinking maybe some of you might be, too.

Generally speaking, the Psalms address two important aspects of human life:

  • our deep reluctance to let go of a world that no longer exists, and
  • our resilient capacity to embrace a new world coming into being.

In his book Praying the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that as human beings we regularly find ourselves in one of these three places:

  • a place of orientation, where everything makes sense in our lives
  • a place of disorientation, where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit
  • a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit, we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives and about God.

Obviously, we prefer to be in a place of orientation. But if we didn’t know it before, we certainly do now: human experience includes times of dislocation and disorientation. And one of the functions of the Psalms is to “tell it like it is,” so we can embrace these situations as the reality in which we live. This applies to both individuals and communities. There’s no denial or self-deception in the Psalms – especially as they express things like the feeling of being down in “the pit,” hatred of enemies, questioning God, its poignant yearning for older, better times.

But they perform another function as well. The language of the psalms does more than just help us recognize and embrace our real situations. In dramatic ways, they can alsoScream!_corkscrew evoke new realities that didn’t exist before and help us form or re-form (re-orient) life in new ways. Brueggemann’s point was that there are psalms that address each of these states of being.  But I wondered: what happens when orientation, disorientation, and reorientation are all happening at once? I mean, isn’t this the rollercoaster ride we’ve all been on this year?

We’re trying to adjust to a “new normal,” but we don’t even know what that is or if it’s going to change again tomorrow. We long for days past when words like pandemic and social distancing were foreign to our ears and masks were only about Halloween. One theme I hear consistently from people is that of experiencing anxiety, depression, or fatigue one day, and acceptance and resilience the next. Some have added stressors of financial insecurity, worries about jobs and schools – but despite our different circumstances, the fact is that our common plight is disorientation.

So, for some reason, in the midst of the roller coaster ride, this psalm spoke to me. Although I have to tell you that the lectionary didn’t include the entire psalm. It omitted verses 13-22 – which is fairly common. Ending with “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” emphasizes the sense of wonder and happiness at being so completely known by God.

I love this part. It’s such an antidote to all the negative messages we get from others or from ourselves. To be so fully known, so fully understood is a gift so many long for and never receive. Just the other night, I was watching a Netflix series about a couple who had lost a child. And like so many in that terrible situation, found themselves at odds with one another. At one point, the husband says that he understands his wife and she exclaims that he has never known her at all.

I don’t think that’s an uncommon scenario. We’re each human, dealing with each of our family histories, life experiences, and other contributors to our psyches. Under stress, our differences are exacerbated. How wonderful, then, to learn that there is One who really does get us – each of us, in all our weirdness and wonderfulness, sinfulness and saintliness. It’s a message I believe cannot be understated. It’s the picture of the ultimate experience of orientation – being grounded, feeling safe and secure.

But wait, there’s more!
imagesBut there is more to the psalm. We begin to get some hints of disorientation in the question the psalmist asks of God: “where can I go to get away from your spirit; where can I flee from your presence? You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.” This sounds a bit ominous, as if perhaps he’s feeling a bit too known by God, perhaps there are things he doesn’t want God to know, wants to keep hidden and secret. If we look inside our own hearts, might we not find those kinds of things, too? Maybe we don’t even want to admit them to ourselves, certainly not to our friends or family members. Depending on what it is, if it’s based on guilt or shame, maybe we don’t always want to be fully known to God. The realization that there’s nowhere to hide could feel quite threatening.

And then there are “those verses”
Now we come to the part of this psalm that is almost never included in a church reading and you can understand why:

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If only, God, you would kill the wicked! If only murderers would get away from me – the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes; the people who are your enemies, who use your name as if it were of no significance.

Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too.

Talk about disorientation! This is not how we would ever teach anyone to talk to God. Yet here it is, right there in the Bible. And it’s not the only place either. This kind of psalm is called an imprecatory psalm, an imprecation being a curse that invokes misfortune upon someone. Imprecatory psalms are ones that call down judgment, anger, calamity, and destruction on God’s enemies.

There are imprecatory words throughout the Bible, not just in the psalms. So as much as we’d like to dismiss them, there they are. So, how are we going to fit them into our understanding of God and humanity’s relationship with God?

They do sound awful read in church. Asking God to act in vengeance doesn’t fit with our idea of a Sunday morning worship experience. We want church to be uplifting, full of praise – and the good kind of prayers.

But then again, what about those times when the ways of the world intrude upon our church, like a persistent, unwelcome visitor – ringing the doorbell over and over, knocking urgently on the door, peeking in through the windows – demanding to get in? And what if that world is screaming in dissonance with the world that our churches are trying to create?

What if a church member has been attacked, fallen victim to a scam, been abused by a nursing home caregiver, been cheated out of their pension, lost a child to a drunk driver, been betrayed by a trusted friend? What if someone in our church is a victim of a hate crimes? How do we respond to the intrusion of an unjust world into our community?

There’s a story of a Carmelite convent in Dachau, Germany, which is an important stop for pilgrims traveling the paths of the Nazi annihilation of the Jews. In 1965, the nuns were given permission to stop praying the daily prayers of the church in Latin. But after a trial period of reading the Psalms in German, they were tempted to return to Latin. The switch, which had been made for the sake of the tourists, brought serious problems because of the  imprecatory psalms, and the cursing passages in a number of other psalms. The use of the Latin had at least covered up the difficulties of the psalms as prayer.

While I can certainly understand their dilemma, there’s another point of view that says we should find a way to make peace with these psalms. After all, what they reveal is as much a part of our human makeup as are compassion and other characteristics we’re much more comfortable claiming.

What if we have been subjected to atrocities that simply do not allow praise and worship? What then? What did and do the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants feel? What did and do the victims of slavery in America and their descendants feel? What about parents and children in Darfur and Syria and other areas of unrest in our world? How do the victims of violent crimes, hate crimes, and fraud feel? And what about children who are victims of sexual and other types of abuse? The imprecatory psalms remind us of the basic human desire for revenge when we or those we love have been wronged. Such words in the biblical text indicate to us that God does not ask us to suppress those emotions but rather to speak about them in plain and heartfelt terms. In speaking out, we give voice to the pain, the feelings of helplessness, and the burning anger.

I realized that these verses were actually what drew me to Psalm 139 this time. Well, that was a little disconcerting, so I dug a little deeper into the nature of  imprecatory psalms. And I found there are three characteristics that helped make some sense of them.

For one, the whole book of Psalms is filled with references to “the enemy” and “the oppressor.” That was because the life of the people of Israel was an ongoing battle against enemies. The people who prayed the psalms felt surrounded, threatened, and engaged in battle by a gigantic army of oppressors. Most of these psalms are communal – expressing the voice of the gathered community of faith – not expressing the voice of one individual.

Secondly, the cries for vengeance in the psalms are not about conflicts that could be resolved by generosity on the part of the ones praying. Those who pray these psalms are shouting out their suffering because of the overwhelming injustices and abject indifferences of their foes, their enemies.

Thirdly, the psalmists cry out to God in the midst of an unjust world. They call on God to mete out punishment, to “make things right” in the face of seemingly hopeless wrong. They are not cries from communities and individuals for permission to carry out their own retributive acts for the wrongs done to them.

Fix this, God, now!
These psalms were not written out of vindictiveness or a need for personal vengeance. Instead, they are prayers that keep God’s justice, sovereignty, and protection in mind. They’re a complaint that makes the loud insistence to God that:

shutterstock_1494985877* things are not right in the present arrangement.

* they need not stay this way and can be changed.

* the psalmist will not accept this way; the present      arrangement is intolerable.

* it’s God’s obligation to change things.

Well, I can relate to that. Things are not right in our present arrangement. People are getting sick and too many are dying. Black and brown communities are taking a harder hit and social safety nets are being torn to shreds. Basic issues of public health and safety have been turned into partisan wedge issues and causes of violence. Willful ignorance in some parts of the country is endangering those in other areas.

So, yes, I appreciate the permission by the psalmists to express my fear, anxiety, and anger – our extreme disorientation. Even the rants that I direct some days at TV news programs – expressions that I’m not proud of and wouldn’t want anyone to hear (I feel God’s hand on my back!) are OK. I am known in all of my human emotional self – and still loved.

And no, I do not recommend a steady diet of imprecatory prayer. What I do pray is that we accept ourselves and one another in the midst of our disorientation – where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit – and that we will have the courage, creativity, and resilience to embrace the new thing that will be born,  a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives.  Gratitude for God’s extravagant love for each and every person, gratitude for being so fully known, so fully loved, and so fully forgiven, gratitude for the vision of a new day when all will fly on the wings of dawn, with God’s hand to guide us; with God’s strong hand to hold us tight!

Amen

 

PSALM 139 (Common English Bible)

O God, you have examined me. You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue that you
don’t already know completely.

You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!

If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest
only on the far side of the ocean—
even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful – I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
when I was being put together in a secret place,
when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,
and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
before any one of them had yet happened
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.

If only, God, you would kill the wicked!
If only murderers would get away from me—
the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes;
the people who are your enemies,
who use your name as if it were of no significance.[
Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?
Don’t I despise those who attack you?
Yes, I hate them—through and through!
They’ve become my enemies too. 

Examine me, God! Look at my heart!
Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts!
Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me,
then lead me on the eternal path!

 

 

 

Who Would Want to Be a Disciple, Really?

 

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St. German’s glass,” image by Gill Poole via Flickr

What’s the job description?

One of the things we were going to do shortly after I came to Good Shepherd was work on my job description. Since I’m here on a half-time basis, we knew we needed to talk about what parts of our ministry here are the biggest priorities for the pastor’s attention. But then we went into lock-down. Although, it’s probably good we didn’t have time to get to that job description because we’d have to change it anyway. Who knew that Zoom technology and creating worship – and everything else – on line was going to be a thing?!

But there are some parts of a pastor’s job description that are just a given. Like preaching – which has often been described as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. And there’s no doubt that this gospel reading today is definitely afflictive. Yes, there’s comfort in there, too. But seriously, who keeps listening after “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword”?

This text is why pastors, if they’re smart, go on vacation this week and avoid having to preach on it. I mean, here we have a version of Jesus that is glaringly inconsistent with what we’re used to. Is this the same Jesus we sing about at Christmas as the ‘Prince of Peace’? The same Rabbi Jesus who taught about the unconditional love of God and the inclusivity of God’s realm? Who prayed in his farewell prayer: “that they may all be one”? Who is this Jesus who says, “Do you think I’m here to bring peace? No, just the opposite; I’ve come to bring division”? This just doesn’t track.

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It Never Was About That Kind of Peace

Although, if we know our gospel stories, we know the ministry of Jesus really has never been peaceful, as in keeping the peace at any price. Remember the story of Jesus’ first act of public proclamation, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” That was all well and good, very inspiring. But after declaring what was, in effect, his mission statement, Jesus follows up with a biting criticism of the religious community. At which point, the crowd turns on him and tries to throw him off a cliff.

Even so, this text today is unsettling. And frankly, with the divisions we see in our country right now, it doesn’t seem very helpful. Although we should have had an inkling of this. In last week’s gospel we read that Jesus sent out the original disciples to proclaim that the realm of heaven had come near. And I said we’re probably in for a bumpy summer, in this season of growth in discipleship, since some of these teachings of Jesus will be very challenging to us – as they were meant to be. They are meant to be ingested and allowed to seep totally into our bodies, minds, and spirits as we ponder what it means to live in and proclaim that the realm of God is here.

I also said that the transformation that such a process brings is one that is internal – our own spiritual awareness as beloved – and external. our actions in the world to proclaim the Beloved Community. Now today we find out that there could be a cost for doing any of that. “Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.  I’ve come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.”

37240407634_674c65e34f_bWho wants to be a . . . disciple?

Do you know the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I guess it’s still on, but it’s not the wildly popular version that was on primetime TV as many as four nights a week. I don’t need to go into the details of the game; the title makes it obvious. The hoped-for outcome is to literally become a millionaire. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

For some reason this show popped into my head when I was reading over the gospel last week. When Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew and then James and John and calls out to them, I imagine him saying –in his best Regis Philbin impression – “Who wants to be a disciple?”. Those first twelve obviously said that they did. But I started to wonder if Jesus had also approached others, who after hearing what the job and some of the consequences of discipleship would be, replied, “Who would want to do that?”

But here we are. We’ve obviously said yes to the call to follow Jesus. Why else are we here? But I’m sure we have questions about our job description, especially when it’s something as difficult to understand as the “not peace but a sword” business.

The first thing we need to do is understand the Jewishness of Jesus.

If we dig just a little into Jesus’ Jewish roots, we get a much better understanding of what he’s talking about. His listeners and Matthew’s readers would have gotten it right away, but we modern readers have been clueless. Episcopal bishop and prolific author John Shelby Spong wrote a book about just this. It’s got a mouthful of a title, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel, but what he’s done is explain how events in the life of Jesus would have been understood by the people of his day, how Jewish culture, symbols, and storytelling tradition permeate the Christian tradition, too.

He doesn’t use today’s Matthew text as an example, but I consulted The Annotated Jewish New Testament. And lo and behold, there it was: a reference to a section of the Talmud, which is a compilation of the writings of historic rabbis expounding on the meaning of the Hebrew Bible – and within it, a reference to one of the Old Testament prophets. Here’s part of what Rabbi Eliezer the Great had to say:

In the period preceding the coming of the messiah,
insolence will increase and the cost of living will go up greatly;
vines will yield fruit, but wine will be expensive; the government will turn to heresy,
and there will be no one to rebuke. The wisdom of the learned will rot,
fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking.

Then he quotes the prophet Micah:

For son spurns father, daughter rises up against mother,
daughter-in-law against
mother-in-law;
a man’s own household are his enemies.

Sound familiar? Rabbi Eliezer then concludes:

Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our father who is in heaven.

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Believe it or not, these writings were meant to bring hope to a beleaguered people. Micah lived at the same time as the prophet Isaiah, when the Assyrian empire threatened and consequently invaded the nation of Judah. 150 years later, in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, Micah was reworked to address the Babylonian invasion and exile. And now Jesus brings them to bear in his time, with Judah under the heel of the Roman empire.

All of these prophets, including Jesus in one of his roles, lived in a time of upheaval. Their descriptions of doom and gloom were often more descriptive of what was already happening than prophesies of things to come. Remember that ‘prophet’, as it’s used in the Bible, doesn’t mean a predictor of the future (other than reading the signs of the times), but someone who calls the people back into right relationship with God. And if ‘disciple’ is a tough job description, think about the poor prophet. We read Jeremiah’s lament, as he tried to convey his message only to be mocked and ignored. Yet he ends by saying, “Sing to God, praise to God, who has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the corrupt!”

And think of Isaiah, who begins right off in Chapter 1 with doom and gloom:

Oh, what are a sinful nation you are! A people weighed down with injustice! You’re a gang of thugs, corrupt children who abandoned and despised me and turned your backs on me! Why do you invite more punishment? Why do you persist in more rebellion? You have a massive head wound, your heart is completely diseased; there is nothing healthy in you, from the top of your head to the sole of your foot.

But then later comes forth with:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” 

and:
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare God’s way, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground will become level, and the rough places a plain. Then God’s glory will be revealed, and all people will see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.’

Finally . . . comforting the afflicted

All of this has been the long way around to get to the ‘comfort the afflicted’ part of these teachings of Jesus. It’s clear from all of this that there is comfort and reassurance to be found in the midst of affliction. Jesus rightly gives full disclosure on what following him would mean.

Sometimes proclaiming the realm of heaven – that is, life right here and now – won’t be popular. For example, a couple of years ago, the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington DC, put on their sign for Trinity Sunday, which was also Pride Sunday: “Thank the Holy Trinity for God’s Whole Diverse Creation – Happy and Blessed Pride!!!  That got them onto the “Exposing the ELCA” website which says the congregation and the sign are shameful, tragic, and an apostasy (a renunciation of our Christian belief).

No peace, but a sword. Get used to it.

Then there’s Pastor Lenny Duncan’s book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US, which includes the chapter: “Jesus Was Divisive.” In an interview, he criticizes congregations pushing to open churches before it’s safe: “The most compassionate action right now is intentional social distancing. That’s what Jesus would be telling us to do if we were gathering.”

I learned of a church that planned to reopen today (not in this area) in spite of the fact that their pastor has a medical condition that puts her at risk. It made me wonder about the decision-making process of that congregation, if anyone had stood up for the safety of the pastor – and other vulnerable members of the church. We’re called to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel but I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind.

I can’t repeat all the language, but Lenny Duncan calls (let’s say) baloney on the idea of Christian unity, where people will set aside the agenda of God in the name of Christian niceness. And he says,

If we are dividing what is life-giving from what is empire,
if we are dividing what is of God from what isn’t,
if we are dividing what is love from what is hate,
then we are walking the path of our Savior.

In order to find your life, you must lose it.

It really comes down to how we define peace. If it’s going along to get along, that’s not true peace. Jesus ends this portion of his teaching with the enigmatic saying:

You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.

That might seem to make no sense, but the truth is when you give yourself over to the ways of God, it might feel like you are losing your life – your autonomy, your independence. But in reality, you’re gaining your life – a real, true, fulfilled life of being in unity with all of creation, of heaven and earth. And the work you do in the world will flow from this divine, unified presence.

So yes, the way of discipleship may often be challenging. If you’re looking for a nice, comfortable religion, where you can sit back and relax – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a church that will provide you with spiritual nurture but won’t ask for your help in creating a better world – this isn’t it. If you think that being a Christian means you’ll always be happy and peaceful and contented and never have any more problems – nope. No more difficulties – nope. Maybe even disagreement – yep. Maybe even real peacemaking – yep.

The old saying of the purpose of preaching the gospel is clichéd but true: that it is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ And sometimes we’re both at the same time. We will sometimes feel afflicted.  But we can always find the comfort that God offers us. Jesus told us about it when he taught that the realm of heaven has come near and it’s among us. It’s within you and me and all of us together.

Don’t be afraid!

Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. Thankfully, God takes us seriously and is with us in all our endeavors. We can be comforted in many ways by this. And we need to rely on that comfort as we go about the work of discipleship. Jesus said:

Don’t let anyone intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed;
nothing is hidden that won’t be made known.  Don’t be afraid of anything –
you are more valuable than an entire flock of sparrows.

You are God’s beloved. You are part of the Beloved Community. You have lost your life in the water of baptism and risen to new a life of discipleship. Don’t be afraid.

Amen

 

Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus taught:

“A student is not superior to the teacher, nor a servant above the master. The student should be glad simply to become like the teacher, the servant like the master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of the household!

“Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops.

“Do not fear those who can deprive the body of life but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not the sparrows sold for pennies? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Abba’s knowledge. As for you, every hair of your head has been counted. So don’t be afraid of anything – you are worth more value than an entire flock of sparrows.

“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Abba in heaven. Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before God in heaven.

“Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law.

“One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household. Those who love father or mother, daughter or son more than me are not worthy of me. Those who will not take up the cross – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me. You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

 

A Purple Zone Pastor Sings the Blues in the Green Season of Discipleship

6m8RPKDAThe Yoke of Discipleship
Well, I’m glad to be back in church, at least to lead worship on Zoom from here. One reason I’m happy is that I can wear a stole again. One of the first things I did after you voted to call me as your pastor was haul my box of clergy stoles over here – where, of course, they’ve been languishing for the past three months. Not that I have to have a stole around my shoulders to perform my pastoral duties.

There’s no magic in the strip of cloth pastors receive in ordination. But it imagesis a reminder of the vows I took at ordination, the stole symbolizing the yoke (like you put on a team of animals) that Jesus talked about when he said, 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

‘Tis the Season – to Be Green
So the stole is a symbol of discipleship. But it doesn’t make me more special than anyone else. In fact, I know a congregation where all the members wear stoles as a sign of each one’s calling as disciples of Jesus. And you know what; I like that idea, especially today as we enter into the very long green season of the Church year. If we were all here in the sanctuary, we would have changed the colors on the altar and lectern to green. The ink on our bulletin inserts would be green. The folder I use for my bulletin and other papers would be green. If we all had stoles, I’d be looking out into a sea of green. But we’re still on Zoom, so this stole is it – on this day when we begin a long stretch of time that focuses on what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew’s gospel names the first twelve to be called. I just read their names. But now, over 2000 years later, we can add each of our names to the list. You (fill in the blank with your name) are a disciple of Jesus, called into ministry with an explicit task. Jesus made it very simple: “Go and tell everyone: the reign of heaven is here.”

Now that might sound easy; it’s only six words. But I’m guessing we’d all feel pretty uncomfortable going up to people and saying, “Hey, guess what; the reign of heaven is here!” Even if you’d use the more traditional ‘kingdom of heaven’ or an even more contemporary version like the ‘commonwealth of heaven’ (my favorite is the Beloved Community), my guess is it wouldn’t make it any easier. Nor should it. I don’t think Jesus ever meant the task of discipleship to be reduced to the recitation of six words. As St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” In other words, discipleship is about both walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Preach the Gospel at All Times,
and When Necessary, Use Words

During this long green season we’ll be hearing teachings from Jesus and pondering how they might apply to us in a very different world than that of the original twelve. Some of these teachings will be very challenging. Easy answers won’t always immediately be in evidence. They are meant to be wrestled with and allowed to seep into our consciousness and into engrained ways of thinking or believing and bringing about some kind of transformation – a shifting in awareness, or thinking, or behavior, or all of the above.

As we enter into the green season, the time of growth in discipleship, we do so at an incredibly challenging time. As if living in a country severely divided by political and cultural identities wasn’t enough, a global pandemic has forced us to rethink how to do work, school, church, and everything else. And if months of that wasn’t enough, we’ve been thrust into a debate on race and the role of police in our communities. On this day when we remember the Emanuel Nine, murdered by an avowed white supremacist, we’re faced with an ever-growing list of people of color killed while in police custody. And if that’s not even enough, just two weeks into Pride Month and on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would eliminate health care protections for people who are transgender.

Now, if you’re getting either excited or worried that this is going to be a political sermon, it is not – at least not in the sense of taking a position on one side or another. But it is about wrestling with how to be a disciple of Jesus during trying times. You may recall that I’ve been part of an initiative called Hearts Across the Divide: Restoring Civil Discourse in the Bay Area. We’ve had to postpone our first event and have been lying low during the pandemic, that is until the protests after the death of George Floyd. Our planning team decided to have a Zoom meeting to check in on how we’re doing.

pq-in-high-dudgeon-2The Meltdown
OK, I’m just going to admit it; I had a bit of a meltdown. I reacted to a video clip and a couple of podcasts that one of our members of a different political persuasion than mine had sent to us all. The best way I can describe my reaction is a state of high dudgeon. I looked it up to be sure. Yep, that was it: feeling and usually showing that one is angry or offended. I emailed Judy, my Hearts co-founder a few days later to say I was struggling and we agreed to talk the next day.

In the meantime, I’m reading opinions, articles, blogs, Facebook posts from people on my side of the political spectrum. And I’m getting upset with them! Frankly, I felt like my head was spinning from the rhetoric coming at me from both sides. I could understand why for some people just opting out of the public arena is the only option for staying sane. But then I remembered that discipleship doesn’t offer any outs for proclaiming the Beloved Community – even when it’s hard.

intersectionality

As Judy and I talked on Friday, there was a growing awareness of how language was pushing the divide even further apart. This is the good thing about reading and listening to opinions from the other side. You discover how we define words in completely different ways. I’ll give you an example. When I was working on critiquing the draft of the ELCA social statement on women and justice, our group (and evidently others) recommended that the statement should define and promote the concept of intersectionality, which refers to the ways in which race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap.

For example, I have a friend who was struggling with the concept of white privilege. She is white; she’s also a lesbian. Her argument was that she’d been oppressed, too, for being both female and gay. And she was right. The fact is that we can be privileged in one aspect of our identities and not in another. There is no hierarchy of oppression. Intersectionality can help us avoid that kind of trap.

Imagine my surprise when I read that this is a huge hot button word for conservatives. It’s seen as a new hierarchical system that places non-white, non-heterosexual people at the top, and as a form of feminism that puts a label on you, tells you how oppressed you are, tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.

Even more confusing was learning that what’s upsetting them isn’t the theory itself. They  largely agree that it accurately describes the way people from different backgrounds encounter the world. But they object to its implications, uses, and, most importantly, its consequences: the upending of racial and cultural hierarchies to create a new one. There’s a perfect example of how two groups of people will hear the same word, even agreeing with some aspects of it, and remain in their divided camps.

Talking Heads2

When Talking to ________, Don’t Say _____________.
So I went back into my ‘civil discourse’ file to find two publications from the news outlet All Sides:

When Talking to Liberals, Conservatives May Want to Avoid These Terms
When Talking to Conservatives, Liberals, May Want to Avoid These Terms

In each one, they list a word or phrase, then how the other side will hear it, and then other options for what to say. For example:

What is said: “White Privilege”
What is heard: insensitivity to issues white people face
Suggestion: also acknowledge struggling white communities (e.g., opioid crisis, lack of manufacturing jobs and opportunity)

What is said: “All Lives Matter”
What is heard: ignoring of problems people of color face
Suggestion: focus on the basic values of caring for shared basic values of caring for children, communities, and country, without use of any slogans

This has been an education for me. I would not have known that words like communities of color, diversity, environmental justice, being woke, multiculturalism, safe spaces, trigger warnings can be heard in ways that I don’t intend and only stop the conversation and thwart any relationship-building across the divide. On the other hand, I can readily agree that I would have trouble with words like Culture War, War on Christmas, Second Amendment, States’ rights, Climate hoax, deep state.

What Do You Mean When You Say Racism?
One word that Judy and I personally learned has different meanings is racism. We went around and around on this with one of our conservative colleagues for quite a while until we realized we weren’t talking about the same thing. One side sees racism as a systemic reality in which we’re all complicit, while for the other side, it’s a matter of an individual’s behavior. The point of all this is to ask ourselves, if we’re serious about creating the Beloved Community, if we’re serious about All Are Welcome, then how can we avoid stepping on verbal landmines and instead use words that better reach out to those with different political views?

But wait, there’s more! There is also the challenge of maintaining civility with those of the same political views as mine. In some ways, this is harder. For example, the word civility itself has come under attack because it’s defined as ‘being nice.’ I’ve been told that civility is the tool of the oppressor; civility is white supremacy in sheep’s clothing. Yes, it can be, if it means telling the oppressed to ‘be nice.’ But that’s not what we’re talking about. Even the Golden Rule is under attack as a tool of the oppressor. And it’s not cool to be in the ‘purple zone’ (some of you know I’m a fan of Leah Schade’s book, Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide).

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So I find myself in the unenviable position of being at odds with people I don’t agree with politically and with people I do agree with politically. For a while I thought about moving to an ashram on a mountaintop somewhere to spend my days in prayer and meditation. But both Moses and Jesus had to come down from the mountain and get back to the business at hand. For me, that’s the call of discipleship to bring the Beloved Community as near as possible, to the best of my ability. And I tell you all of this, not as a way to continue last week’s meltdown or to air out my dirty laundry or as a plea for sympathy. I tell you because when I read the gospel, the call of the original twelve, I can only fulfill my call in the midst of my daily reality. Same for you.

I was listening to a recording from a Sufi meditation workshop. The teacher spent quite a bit of time at the beginning of the session talking about current events and what our response could be as mystics in the world. One thing he said really landed. He said that justice alone will not create peace in the world. There must also be transformation within us. That’s exactly what Jesus is calling us into. Even with these hard teachings.

Some of them will be very challenging to us. But they are meant to be wrestled with and allowed to seep into our consciousness and into our engrained ways of thinking, being,  or believing – as they bring about some kind of transformation within us, a shifting in awareness, or thinking, or behavior, or all of the above. As we find peace within ourselves, we naturally will bring the Beloved Community near to all we meet – even those with whom we disagree.

So put on your seat belts. It could be a bumpy summer. But remember, the color is green – for growth. And we will grow together in discipleship and faithful service to the world.

Amen!

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MATTHEW 9:35‑10:8
Jesus continued touring all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, telling the Good News of God’s reign and curing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses. At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus said to the disciples, ”The harvest is bountiful but the laborers are few. Beg the overseer of the harvest to send laborers out to bring in the crops.”

Jesus summoned the Twelve, and gave them authority to expel unclean spirits and heal sickness and diseases of all kinds. These are the names of the twelve apostles: the first were Simon, nicknamed Peter – that is, ‘Rock’ – and his brother Andrew; then James, ben-Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew, the tax collector; James, ben-Alphaeus; Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Jesus sent them 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 the sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, expel demons. You received freely – now freely give.”