Sunday morning I found myself, an incurable optimist, preaching perched on the chasm of doom, 46 hours into a Trump presidency. Green Street United Methodist is the archetype of the raggedly dogged social action church. The kind that Newt things is dead, when, actually, it’s not even tired. But Sunday was still a tough sell for hope.
The first lectionary text for the day was better suited to the more triumphal congregations; it’s the one from Isaiah, about how the light is now shining out of deep darkness. I skipped that one, muttering. Here’s the thing; nothing in the scripture helps us much right now, if the subject is democratic process. We are way off the biblical map, since the canon closed 9 centuries before the Magna Carta, 13 before European convicts settled the Carolinas, 14 before the Moravians came down the Shenandoah to what is now precinct 601 in Forsyth County. It was 16 centuries before anyone but white men could vote in anything worthy of the name democracy. Jesus didn’t vote and nobody voted for him.
So there is no relevant political guidance to found, although I will point out that there is a lot in the Bible that the absolute rulers found comforting. Every king since Constantine had their very own Christian chapel and Christian chaplain. John Wesley isn’t a lot of help either. He thought his American followers were way off the rails with the democracy thing. He opposed the revolution, supported the King and scolded all of our founding fathers for their childish overreaching.
It’s only quite recently that it occurred to any theologian that people of faith could create a democratic government with qualities of mercy and justice. And they never would have imagined that once we had it, we would let it float away on a froth of nonsense. How has the brief American experiment come to this? Especially now amid a vast tide of rootless suffering on a melting planet. This is simply beyond the imagination of any of the biblical authors except maybe whacked out Ezekiel and the inscrutable dude who wrote Revelations.
I don’t know about you, but I’m attending the Democratic party precinct 601 meeting next month. I’m ashamed to say it will be my first meeting. Perhaps you have many such missed citizen opportunities, too. Quit missing them. Programs and policies laboriously put in place over decades are about to evaporate at the clumsy hands of people who know not much of anything, much less what their actions will do those with the least capacity to absorb one more blow, one more insult, live with one more burden. Put your phone down and show up.
The Bible doesn’t help us know how to fix democracy; but it does have a lot to say about how to live without having power and even more about not needing it.
You don’t need Ezekiel or the Revelations dude at a moment like this. Head for Jesus. Look at what he did right after his mentor John was arrested by Homeland Security. Herod didn’t need to tweet his move; everybody knew his appetites and paranoia; it was just a matter of time till he went after John like someone we know went after John Lewis. Jesus was part of John’s movement, so wasn’t surprised by the arrest. When Herod made his move, Jesus headed for the hills. Then in utter vulnerability he came back down, started forming and collecting his confoundingly unexpected movement. His was not like John’s, except in its radicality. Jesus’ radicality went much farther and in a different direction than your normal righteous protest. It was marked from the first by a ridiculous amount of healing and radical generosity that made no sense. It was almost as if Jesus was declaring an end to religion, not just offering a new flavor. This was confusing from the start and unsatisfying to revolutionaries and rulers ever since.
What did Jesus find in the wilderness? In the second half of my life, I find myself going to the wild places more and more. Two weeks after the election I was in the wilderness end of the Grand Canyon down a mile from the rim near the river. On the way back up, I learned a lot as we were caught in a winter storm.
As we picked our way up the trail, we heard stone move high above us, then bounce once, twice, three times and, after a long silence a swinging sword, a sharp crack more like a cannon far below. Even through the sleet and wind, the sound cut hard with menace even though we knew the Canyon wasn’t thinking about anything but gravity.
Nature and the fundamental drivers of large scale change do not care what humans think, feel or tweet. The Colorado plateau tilted up over millions of years, draining an ocean that cut like a saw through a billion years of rock in what by geologic standards was a relative handful of years. It carved a cathedral. But, I don’t even think the Canyon knows or cares about its own beauty.
Don’t worry about the Canyon. The climate deniers will be long gone before another few rocks fall; we will all be entirely unremembered before the river cuts another quarter inch from the basalt floor. This is the natural fact Jesus would have learned in the wilds east of Jerusalem.
I think Jesus went to the wild places to remember another natural fact more preposterous than all the canyons on earth; that amid all the harshness, fragility and loss, loving kindness survives. Humans care and care for each other, even as blood, race, wealth, politics, religion and ethnicity fall like nameless stone from the cliffs. The rocks fall, the kindness survives.
What could be more obvious than the fact that everyone who has ever lived died, felt pain and knew sorrow. We know it for ourselves and we know it for all those we love, too. Bitter resignation makes sense. But generation after generation, we find lovingkindness.
Life is fragile, short and harsh, THEREFORE be radical in your love.
My Mom died a few days short of 18 years ago. She was a practical person not given to symbol. I’m more of a romantic, so when she was near death, I took her hand and asked her if she had last words for me. She looked at me and said, “no, I think you’ve got it. You’ll remember what you need when the time comes.”
Today is a time for us to remember what Jesus told us. We need it now. Wayne Merritt, a Baptist drinking buddy who taught me Greek, said that Jesus’ message was that you will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.
Jesus came out of the wilderness and gave himself to healing —and never stopped, even for the Sabbath. He said that he would stop healing when his Parent did. How preposterous; how human, how holy; we don’t know whether to laugh at him or cry for how strange that is to us.
And what did he do beside healing pretty much everyone in sight? What does he tell his movement to do? He doesn’t give them a box of tricks to win anything at all, but a way to live; And what a crazy way! How happy are the humble, those who know sorrow, who claim nothing, who are starving for goodness. Here it shifts: How happy are the merciful (not desiring to show mercy, but doing it); and so too those who are actually sincere and those who do the work of peacemaking. And, here it gets even worse: happy are those who suffer persecution for the cause of goodness, especially when people tweet about you and make things up entirely. If you suffer for living a true life of radical generosity, how lucky you are!
This, Jesus says, is what salt is for, what a light is for, what we are for.
He keeps the radical pedal down, which must have been a shock to those just looking for some free medical care or to get some demons released. Jesus said that anger is as bad as murder! Anyone who calls someone a fool commits a serious crime and that anyone who says someone is lost is himself heading straight to the fire. Recently, I happen to frequently call a particular group lost fools, which makes me guilty of both of those. I wish Jesus would be more reasonable and supportive of our movement.
But he didn’t get more reasonable; he just keeps getting worse. Don’t tell people that God will guarantee your promise, no eye for an eye, no hitting back and if the cop makes you do one mile, give them another. And give to anybody who asks anything (I can tell you that’s dumb; that’s why I ended up in the pulpit!).
On and on, page after page, without a single tip about how to beat Herod, his deeply annoying glameroti and his horrible ever-grinning children. “Jesus…..is…..impossible,” every king and king-hater has said for two millennia.
“Comfort my people, for in the darkness we have a seen a great light.” But the light of Jesus is not the light we want. It is not a way out or a way over, but a way through; a way to live day by day, year by year, even generation after generation after generation, if we have to, waiting for the promises of god for mercy and justice to be realized. And what do we do while we wait for the big show? Go do mercy and some justice, that’s what. Jesus’ promise is that you and I can live this way, The Way, the only way which gives life a chance at all.
Come and be part of the end of all fear, especially the fear of all death and all that claims the power to kill. Come and give your body and mind to The Way that leads to life. Give yourself away, every bit and you will feel the life flow where once you held tight to your little fears and hopes. Give it away, every bit. Be part of the healing and don’t start big. Before you make a big holy show of it, think of your brother, sister, former spouse or left-behind friend; go make peace with them first. Come away from the anger and scheming. Quit bargaining and holding your minor gains as if they will last. Live this way now and you will find life flowing freely, abundant, overflowing beyond all measure at all.
You might point out that, technically, it didn’t work out so well for Jesus or those who bet their lives on his words. Herod won without a recount. Pilot, two clicks meaner; he won, too. Most kings do. But take a look at the end of Jesus story.
The story of the boats and fishers is so good that it show up in all four gospels in four different ways. John puts the story in the tender days after the assassination and scattering, when the fishermen went back to fishing for fish. Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons and two other disciples were hiding at the lake north of Mt. Airy. Peter announced that he was going fishing and since nobody wanted to be left behind, they all tumbled in. They stayed out all night, and caught nothing. They headed back in, even more discouraged than when they started, except now hungry, too. Jesus watched from the beach across the early still mist and then called, “children, have you caught anything to eat?” (No, of course.) “Cast on the right side where its deeper and you’ll find some.” They netted so many they couldn’t haul them in. John reports that it was 153, which is like counting the beer bottles left on the lawn after beating Carolina. Peter, sure didn’t count the fish. Naked, he jumped out of the boat, pushing his way a hundred yards through waste-deep water to get to his beloved friend.
Jesus had started a charcoal fire going on the beach, expecting the haul, toasting some bread. “Bring me some of the fish; y’all need some breakfast.”
Listen to the tenderness of the one who calls us into a preposterous Way of generous vulnerability. This is a savior who knows we need to eat as much as we need hope; and that we need hope as much as we need breakfast.
Be as careful with each others’ hearts and spirits in these tender days as Jesus was that morning.
Jesus does not give us a way to beat the mean and violent, but neither it is a counsel to give way to the liars and schemers. He gives us The Way to not be like them. So do not let your fear draw you toward them or their way. They have no power over you and they have no power to stop you from living The Way of Life. Their castles are as froth on the waves. You are drawing from a deeper place, carried by a deeper current, that can cut through stone like the Colorado.
The healer is here among as we fish, and type and give away our lives in healing, or teaching or raising up the voice of hope through art or kindness. Give yourself to life-giving now, not later; save nothing back for a safer or smarter time. The Reign of God is at hand, says Jesus. I think he meant your very fingertips.
“Hey,” says Jesus, “do you want some fish?”