24 June 2018

Forward with Hope

Joshua 1:1-9 & Philippians 3:12-14

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost/ 24th June 2018

Moses is dead.  “My servant Moses is dead.”  Now it’s time for you to cross the Jordan without him.  “Do not be frightened or dismayed,” God tells the people, “for I am with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).  Be strong and courageous.  Proceed.  Go. 

This is the command, the mantra, which carries its own momentum.  Be strong. Be courageous. Do not be afraid.  Proceed.

This is a difficult story, of course.  The Israelites are about to forge the River Jordan and cross into the land promised to them, a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17), flowing with wealth and abundance. But what about the people already in the land?  They don’t know Yahweh, they don’t know anything about the prior arrangement, the covenant, the promise.  And at what cost to those already living there?  Is it the promised land or the stolen land?  Yes, it’s problematic text.

Acknowledging this, I want to place the emphasis elsewhere, on the overall movement of these verses: the call to Joshua and the people, and the summons of God that sends them forward.  Not back to Egypt.  Not back to the wilderness.  Not back to slavery and aimless wandering, but forward into a promise.  I want us to listen for the promise that comes tumbling out of the future to meet us and then carries us along to where we need to go.  Because God offers the promise and the summons, because God is good and kind and faithful, we’re told to be strong, be courageous.  Set fear and dismay aside.  Step out into the land, step into the spaciousness of God’s promise, step into God’s expansive grace.

As I hear these words, I can’t help but hear similar promises running through scripture.  Jesus promised never to leave us orphaned (John 14:18). A comforter, a companion—the Holy Spirit—would come to strengthen us in our call (John 14:26).  Over and over and over again, Jesus encouraged his people, “Take courage! Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Didn’t the angel at the tomb on Easter morning tell the disciples that Jesus had gone ahead of them and will meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:7)?   Before his ascension, Jesus promised, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  In his letter to the Philippians, we have Paul’s stirring description of his call, “Not that I have already obtained the goal” of fully knowing the height and depth of knowing Christ, “I press on to make it my own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).

It was George MacLeod (1895-1991), founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, prophet, preacher, mystic, who said that the posture of the Christian is always leaning into the future.  This insight has always meant a lot to me.  We don’t look back.  We don’t stay where we are, standing upright, going nowhere.  We lean forward into the future, into the new day of God. We move.  Proceed.  Go.  Cross over the Jordan into the land.  Press forward.

Last Saturday, the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.) convened in St. Louis, MO, with opening worship.  Worship is always one of the highlights of the General Assembly, with thousands of Presbyterians singing hymns, supported by brass and organ and a choir 300-strong; with powerful preaching, beautiful, inspiring liturgy, and the sharing of Communion, which was celebrated at every worship service.  Throughout the week, musical and liturgical elements reflected the broad cultural and ethnic diversity of the PCUSA.  The 224th GA will be in Baltimore in 2020, the first time since 1991. (Yours truly has been asked to chair the worship planning team for the Assembly, which was why I was there this year.  It’s an honor but pray for me).  Last Sunday, the out-going co-moderators T. Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston—they were, together, an invaluable gift to the PCUSA for these past two years—preached a provocative sermon on the Joshua text.

It was the perfect choice for this GA and for the PCUSA, for we are crossing over the Jordan into new territory as a denomination—and people are fearful and anxious.  As God spoke to Joshua, so God speaks to us: “Be strong.  Be courageous.  Do not fear.  Proceed.  I am with you wherever you go.”  You’re not alone.

 It’s impossible to summarize the work of the GA.  There are plenty of articles you can read online at The Presbyterian Outlook site, with excellent reporting done by the Presbyterian News Service.  I’m grateful for the commissioners.  It’s joyful, holy, and challenging work being a commissioner at GA.  Through faithful decisions and bold demonstrations, the PCUSA proved this week that God isn't finished with us. The church is reforming, straining forward. We're offering hope, acting with hope, extending release to the captives as agents of liberation. As the Confession of Belhar reminds us, coming from Reformed Christians in South Africa, “The church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged.”

Here’s a sampling what took place this week:

The Assembly elected Vilmarie CintrĂ³n-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann as co-moderators.  Vilmarie, a good friend, is a ruling elder who lives Miami, originally from Puerto Rico.  She is the first Latina to serve in this role in the church. Cindy, a teaching elder, is the resource presbyter for both the Presbytery of Boston and the Presbytery of Northern New England. Vilmarie and Cindy led the Assembly with great skill, kindness, energy, and love.  During plenary committee reports, the Assembly often takes short breaks to keep commissioners alert and engaged.  During one break Vilmarie taught the entire Assembly how to salsa dance.  We had Presbyterians dancing!  Dancing the salsa! It truly is a new day for the church.  (It was Vilmarie who first taught me how to salsa several years ago in San Juan; she’s a great dancer.)

On Wednesday morning, it became clear that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had entered into a new day. Commissioners approved two historic overtures. One affirms and celebrates the gifts of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the church. Another affirms the rights and dignity of people of transgender, non-binary and people of varying gender identities.

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, together with More LightPresbyterians and other partners, worked for the passage of these overtures, as well as one upholding the church's historic definition of "religious liberty." The Social Justice Committee (11) approved these items with no opposing speeches and few dissenting votes and sent them to the Assembly for a full vote. Then—remarkably!—the Assembly included these items in its consent agenda—truly a sign of the power and impact of the stories of LGBTQIA+ people in the church these past few years.  If you know how much we struggled as a denomination over the past twenty years, you know just how extraordinary this is.

One overture (11-12) says: “Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) affirms its commitment to the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world. The assembly affirms the full dignity and the full humanity of transgender people, their full inclusion in all human rights, and their giftedness for service. The assembly affirms the church’s obligation to stand for the right of people of all gender identities to live free from discrimination, violence, and every form of injustice.”

The other overture (11-13) says: “Celebrating the expansive embrace of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the breadth of our mission to serve a world in need, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) affirms the gifts of LGBTQIA+ people for ministry and celebrates their service in the church and in the world.”  The resolution laments the suffering of LGBTQIA+ people who were hurt by the church’s policies in the past, and gives thanks for the persistence of those who worked for change. It notes the ministries of those serving in many capacities in the church today with excellence, and it calls for greater openness, stronger social witness and intentional effort in ecumenical and mission co-worker relationships to advocate for justice and equality for all people.  Again, this, too, was part of the consent agenda.  It was approved, with no debate—unanimously.

The Way Forward Committee, considering the work of The Way Forward Commission, considered proposals pertaining to the future structure of the GA. What kind of structure does the denomination need for a time such as this?  What will allow us to move forward with the work God is calling us to.

The GA considered overtures calling for divestments of PCUSA funds in fossil fuels.  After three hours of debate on Friday, the recommendation failed.  Nevertheless, the GA encouraged Presbyterians to continue to care for God’s good creation.  The Presbyterians for Earth Care awarded the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake for the excellent work they are doing in caring for the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  As an Earth Care Congregation, Catonsville Presbyterian Church has directly benefited from its partnership with IPC.  I was honored to receive the award on behalf of IPC, at the Presbyterians for Earth luncheon.

The Presbyterian Writers Guild recognized the prophetic writing of James Atwood, who has been tireless in his work to end gun violence, especially in his book Gundamentalism and Where It is Taking America (Cascade Books, 2017). Atwood said, “One million Americans died at the barrel of a gun since 1979.) I highly recommend his work.

The Assembly condemned the U.S. Federal government for separating refugee children from their parents, as well as the President Trump’s recent executive order.  The resolution calls on the government to ensure that parents in custody know the location of their children, facilitate regular communication between parents and children and ensure that families in detention have access to attorneys. It also says the government should not use the promise of reunification with children as a ploy to get parents to plead guilty to a crime.  The Assembly called its churches to act on behalf of the children and their families.

Last Monday, I went on an Underground Railroad tour to Alton, IL, situated about thirty miles north of St. Louis, along the Mississippi River.  The town was an important center of abolitionist activity, and had many safe houses or “stations” along the road to freedom; it’s also the final resting place of Elijah P. Lovejoy (1802-1837). Lovejoy was a graduate of Princeton Seminary, a Presbyterian minister, prophet, preacher, abolitionist, and newspaper publisher who fought for the end of slavery, and most associated with Alton.  He was attacked several times in St. Louis, and his printing press tossed into the Mississippi River.  He crossed the river into Alton, IL, where he set up another press. 

On 7th November 1837, a pro-slavery mob attacked the warehouse, along the river, where Lovejoy had his fourth printing press; they destroyed it and threw it in the river. Lovejoy was shot and killed in the raid and, in many respects, was the first casualty of the Civil War, which followed twenty-three years later.  Lovejoy is one of my heroes. His grave in Alton is holy ground.  Lovejoy said, “I am threatened with violence and death because I care to advocate, in any way, the cause of the oppressed…And I am prepared to abide the consequences.”  He said, “The cry of the oppressed has entered not only into my ears, but into my soul, so that while I live, I cannot hold my peace.” My time in Alton informed what happened the next day.

One of the most meaningful experiences of the week, for me, was to participate in a public action, called Release to the Captives, which took place on Tuesday afternoon. Hundreds of Presbyterians gathered at the convention center and then walked—six across, arm-in-arm—and chanted, prayed, and yelled our way through the streets to the St. Louis City Justice Center, about a mile away. This was the first time the Assembly did anything like this.  The march was led by J. Herbert Nelson, our stated clerk, along with former stated clerks, former moderators, and the current co-moderators. The march was a plea to end cash bail. The jails in St. Louis (and elsewhere in the U.S.) are full of people being held on minor offenses, unable to pay cash bail. The inability to pay bail has been a driving force in the increased mass incarceration of the past fifteen years, resulting in job loss, mounting fines, and child custody issues. I learned this week that 90% of people who are held in jail on bail will plead guilty just to go home, even if they did not commit the crime. J. Herbert Nelson presented representatives of The Bail Project—which screens incarcerated individuals and seeks to help those whose bail is less than $5,000—with a check for $47,500. As early as that evening people were being released from jail.  This offering was collected during worship on Saturday morning, and through online contributes from Presbyterians across the country.  Since Tuesday, another $7000 had been received. (And it’s still not too late to give.)

At the rally in front of the Justice Center, J. Herbert said “People are ready for the church to take action.  I think the church showing up in the community is crucial now.”  He said the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is returning to the justice understanding of the 1960s, when church leaders marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now is the time for the church to be the church, to bear witness to the liberating power of the gospel. It’s up to us to bear witness to God’s demand for justice and wholeness and healing.  We must move from the safe confines of our sanctuaries out into the streets.  We need to be visible, seen, heard.  Now is the time.  Don’t be afraid. Go on!

As we move into God’s future. Here are two questions that, I think, we need to keep before us:  Where is God’s heart breaking? Where is God’s heart breaking in the City of Baltimore, in Catonsville, in Baltimore County, in Howard County?  We need to go there.  This is the work of the church.

Baltimore BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), is a community-organizing association in the city working closely with religious leaders downtown, for more than thirty-five years.  They are working hard to make Baltimore a better place to live.  Their work was celebrated in a powerful sermon on Thursday morning.  BUILD’s ministry/mission is driven by this mantra: 
Your misery is your ministry.  
Your pain in your purpose.  
Your mess becomes your message.  
Your test becomes your testimony. 

This is the work of the church.

There’s also another question we must keep before us: Where is God’s heart bursting with joy?  Ministry is about more than heartbreak and suffering.  Where is God’s heart bursting with joy in the City of Baltimore, in Catonsville, in Baltimore County, in Howard County?  We need to go there, too, to share the joy, to support them in their joy. 

Can you see the land of promise out there?  It’s there. Human suffering and joy will lead us there, to the place we need to be.  God says:  Go.  Cross over.  Proceed.  Be strong.  Have courage.  Don’t be afraid.   I will be with you wherever you go. 

10 June 2018

Choosing Sides

Mark 3:20-35

Third Sunday after Pentecost

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with an exorcism in a synagogue on the sabbath, releasing a man from an unclean spirit. Then Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law who was ill with a fever; he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; he healed a man of leprosy and soon people were coming from everywhere to be healed; he healed a paralytic and offered forgiveness for his sins.  The religious authorities were furious because Jesus was effectively undermining their power and influence.  Jesus rebuffs religious custom.  His disciples don’t fast.  They pluck heads of grain—a form of work—as they walk along a field on the sabbath.  Then Jesus heals again on another sabbath.  “Stretch out your hand,” Jesus said to the man with the withered man. We’re told that whenever the unclean spirits saw Jesus they fell down and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mk. 3:5). 

In the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus offends everyone: religious leaders, the unclean spirits (although they quickly yield to him).  Jesus offends the Roman occupiers; it’s veiled, but it’s there, especially when Jesus heals a man named Legion who was tormented by demons, demons of imperial tyranny (Mk. 5:1-20). And then, after appointing the twelve disciples, sending them out with a message and giving them authority over demons, Jesus returns home.  Word spreads that Jesus has arrived home.  Even before they had a moment to share a meal together, the crowds show up at the door.  And then Jesus has an argument with his family.  Now his even household is offended.  And it’s only the third chapter of Mark!

“He has gone out of his mind” (Mk. 3:21).  His family is worried, concerned, angry.  People are saying, ‘He’s gone out of his mind.”  When they hear the demands of the crowd, Jesus is ready to go, but, the text says, “they went out to restrain him.”  That’s a remarkable image.  His own family was trying to restrain him, hold him back from his calling; they thought he had gone too far with all this talk about the kingdom of God and healing and battling demons. 

They weren’t the only ones alarmed. Who should appear right at this time?  Scribes—religious scholars—sent by the authorities in Jerusalem on a fact-finding mission, sent to investigate this radical rabbi.

Their verdict?  Jesus has a demon.  And not just any demon.  He has the ruler of demons in him, “he has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (Mk. 3:22).  That was their conclusion, with mind-numbing logic.  Who was Beelzebul? His name is derived from a Philistine god.  It’s associated with the Canaanite god Ba ‘al.  Beelzebul means “Lord of the flies.”  He’s the ruler of the demons.  In Jesus’ time, he would also be known as Satan.

So you can imagine how Jesus felt when he heard the religious scholars say that Jesus was the one possessed, accusing him of being a servant of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons!  Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus responded to this ludicrous claim.  Jesus goes right into a parable.  But I can easily imagine at that point Jesus doubling-over in laughter. You’ve got to be joking! Oh, that’s a good one!

We shouldn't be surprised by their response. Jesus wasn’t surprised. He was ready with a parable.  Jesus knew what we need to know: There is something in us that often prefers to "demonize" God's work in the world, instead of experiencing and embracing God's redemption, liberation, and healing.  This is a tough to hear, tough to acknowledge. There is something in us that resists the work of God in the world, pushes it away—especially when the work or will of God is a threat to our authority or autonomy, when it’s a threat to our power or privilege, when we have something to lose.  Just watch what happens when anyone tries to take on the oppressive powers, watch them swarm all over you like flies.

That, essentially, is what these exorcism stories are all about in the Gospels, especially in Mark: liberation from oppressive powers. The kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and embody was about liberation from the oppressive powers, by an even greater power.  The exorcisms are not really about being possessed by literal demons; exorcisms are symbolic actions. The demon is not really a demon but points to something else.  The demon could be disease (especially the poor social conditions that produce disease), ideologies that oppress and tyrannize, political oppression, economic oppression that keeps people poor and impoverished and sick; demons could be abuse, violence, misogyny—a whole host of forces. Demon possession was common in traditional societies.  And do you know what?  It’s just as common today; we are just as possessed by all kinds of forces and ideologies and falsehoods and lies that oppress and tyrannize and dehumanize and push against God’s will for our lives, for families, communities, religious institutions, nations.

In anthropological studies of demon possession, in earlier times, it was common for those in power to impugn exorcists—Mark paints Jesus as an exorcist—especially when they take on a positive, active, even militant role.  Anyone who questioned those in power were called “witches,” in an attempt to disempower and discredit them.  It was not uncommon for these exorcists, “these upstart controllers of spirits” by virtue of their power over the spirits, to be charged with causing what they cured.[1] The ruling class often operates this way.  That’s what the scribes were doing.  They believed themselves to be God’s representatives; because Jesus chose to operate beyond their control, he was obviously in allegiance to Satan.

So, Jesus throws down a parable.  Without mincing words, holding nothing back, he asks, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mk. 3:23b-25). 

In our American context, this verse is often associated with Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) famous “A House Divided” speech, given on June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Illinois, on the occasion of accepting the Republican Party’s nomination to the U. S. Senate.  This speech and campaign culminated in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  The question up for debate was the future of slavery.  But, with all due to respect to President Lincoln (my favorite president), his allusion to this text in his speech actually distorts the radical nature of Jesus’ parable.

In talking about a “divided house,” Jesus wasn’t trying to convince the scribes, “I’m essentially on your side against Satan.”  His parable cuts deeper.  He undermines the scribes’ us-vs-them duality, he blows open their self-serving arrogance, he calls the scribes out for essentially being on the wrong side.  They are divided in their dedications, they are at odds with themselves, and they are at war with God. Jesus is taking on the scribal authorities, the religious institution, the abuses of the Temple in Jerusalem, whose leadership was collaborating with the Roman Empire.  Jesus then says, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (Mk. 3:27).

This is a peculiar analogy.  The “strong man” is the scribal establishment, the religious leaders.  Jesus will come to overthrow the “strong man,” tie him up, and plunder his property.  Jesus is like a thief who comes in the night (see Mt. 24:43).  It’s a remarkable parable—and if we have problems with this image of Jesus as a thief, find it shocking, offensive, perhaps that says something about us, especially if we move through society in the social dominant class with power and money and privilege, determined to uphold a philosophy that reinforces and protects our worldview, that looks to religion only to protect and “bless” our hold on things.

And then, as if all of this isn’t enough, Jesus drops the mic: “Truly—listen up—I tell you, people will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mk. 3:28-29).  If Jesus initially laughed at the scribes, he wasn’t laughing now—because now he’s deadly serious.

Forgiveness and mercy abound for all kinds of blasphemies, apparent heresies, moral failings, mistakes, sins.  But to resist God's work is to "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit" (Mk. 3:27), which, Jesus tells us, is unpardonable.  “Holy Spirit” here doesn’t refer to the third person of the Trinity.  Holy Spirit refers to the spirit of God. The religious authorities, the demonic spirits, the political authorities, even Jesus’ family were all threatened by the one who comes like a thief in the night to bind the strong man. 

In talking about the scribal establishment and religious authorities, we have to be extra careful that we don’t view Jesus’ parable against Judaism, because then we as Christians would be guilty of demonizing Judaism (which has happened, sadly, far too often in our history).  Jesus was not a Christian; he lodged his criticism of Second Temple Judaism as a Jew.  The issue at stake here is not exclusively a Jewish problem, but one that both Christian and Jew are complicit.  Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy.  He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix.  Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform.  Beware those who cannot tells God’s will from their own.”[2]  

When we confuse the two, God’s will and from our own will, we stand in the way of God’s ongoing redemptive work to save, to heal, to liberate God’s children, to liberate humanity. When we resist the work of God, when we are stand in the way or hinder the liberation of God’s people, when we stand in the way of healing and forgiveness and reconciliation, we are not only blaspheming the Holy Spirit, we’re also anti-Christ.  And sometimes the most blasphemous are religious institutions and church leaders that, like the scribes, claiming spiritual authority, are quick to charge people as buddies of Beelzebul, only to stand in the way, obstructing the kingdom of God. The scribes are more concerned with keeping things the way things are, maintaining the status quo, preserving their power, with little regard for those who suffer from their selfishness.  They have little interest in the kingdom of God. They mistake the work of Holy Spirit for Satan. 

Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996), Jesuit priest and liberation theologian, beautifully wrote, "The blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics [and bad theology, I would add] will always be pardonable…. What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with 'theological' joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one's very eyes."[3]

In his extraordinary commentary on Mark’s Gospel, Ched Myers reminds us, “To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.”[4]

We’re always being asked to choose sides.  Are we aligned with God’s purposes? Are we brothers and sisters of Jesus seeking after God's will, doing God's will? Or are we, unknowingly, buddies of Beelzebul?  Whose side are we on?

Image:  Georges Rouault (1871-1958), "Christ and the Apostles."

[1] P. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 49:4, Cited in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988), 165.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Truth to Tell,” in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing, 2003), 85.
[3] Juan Luis Segundo, “Capitalism Versus Socialism: Crux Theologica,” in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America (Orbis, 1979), 240ff, cited in Myers, 167.
[4] Myers, 167.