(Or, “The Power of Assumptions”)
Sermon delivered 13 August, 2017 at Antioch Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Lexington, Kentucky.
We Christians are often called, or often call ourselves, “People of the Book.” Whether we think about it in these terms or not, part of what connects us together as a community, as a distinct people, is that we are lovers of story. We come together to dive into the story of scripture because there’s something in it we find meaningful. Our Christian tradition tells a story in which the ultimate reality, Existence Itself, which we call “God,” looks on the suffering of men and women and is moved with compassion. Compassion itself is assumed into the core of reality. Out of that compassion, our story has God actually entering into human life in the person of Jesus, and walking among us to experience the worst our compassionless cruelty had to offer. In his death, and triumph over death, the Jesus of scripture begins a process of reconciliation by compassion which we are called to continue today. God assumes a human nature, and all of humanity, our failings and weaknesses, our greatness and potential, our hopes and dreams, our relationships, our history, our environment, are assumed up into the divine reality of compassionate love. It’s a pretty awesome story, and it’s no wonder that it has captured the hearts and minds of billions through the ages.
The first awesome story that got ahold of me as a child was that of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. When I was 3, 4, 5, and 6 years old, nearly every afternoon I’d plop down in front of the TV and let myself get caught up in the amazing adventures into which that cartoon invited me. The hero was Adam, the young prince of the Planet Eternia. Though he was destined to be king after his noble father King Randor, Adam was a constant disappointment. He seemed reckless and irresponsible. He seemed weak and cowardly. Eternia was in constant danger, always subject to attack by an array of powerful, magical evildoers led by a terrorist sorcerer named Skeletor. In times like those, the people needed leadership they could depend on. People looking on assumed Prince Adam would never amount to anything great, and certainly would never be worthy to sit on his father’s throne.
But Prince Adam had a secret. See, Adam was in possession of a magical power sword that transformed him into the mighty hero and warrior He-Man. It was as He-Man that supposedly weak, supposedly unpromising Prince Adam was already Eternia’s beloved first line of defense against the evil of Skeletor. Everyone assumed Adam had nothing to offer them, and everyone was wrong.
I’d watch the cartoon everyday with my toy copy of He-Man’s power sword. I’d lift the sword up and say the magic words along with the cartoon: “By the power of Grayskull…I have the power!” It wasn’t enough to watch the stories on TV as things that happened to other people. I was assumed into the story, part of the drama. Cartoons of the time were basically just commercials to sell toys, and I had all the Masters of Universe action figures. I wanted more time with these characters that I loved, so after the cartoon, I’d get the toys out, and with a child’s imagination, I’d assume control of the story, and create hundreds, maybe thousands of new adventures. As we grow older, a lot of that power of imagination dulls, but for gifted creators, writers, and artists, they carry that with them into adulthood, and artists and children alike will tell you that their characters take on a life of their own, and that the creator feels as much like a witness as an author.
The ancient Christians experienced this same instinct to break out the action figures and expand the gospel story. If we look at the figures surrounding Jesus in the New Testament, we find that we don’t have nearly as much information as we might like. Peter, Paul, and maybe Judas are the only apostles who really feel like three dimensional, flesh and blood people. John, Thomas, and the Beloved Disciple are more stereotypes than people we can bond with, the biblical writers give us some glimpses of the Jameses but aren’t always clear on which James is which, and most of the others are just names on lists that pretty much match, but only pretty much. Christians in the early centuries of the Church weren’t just reading or listening to the gospel story but were caught up into it, walked alongside the heroes of scripture, and like a child at play or a nerd writing Star Wars/Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossover fanfiction, they gave birth to a great number of fascinating legends which have fleshed out the traditions of Christian culture over the centuries.
These legends haven’t been much of a part of our own Stone-Campbell Movement tradition. Ours is a movement born in the quest to bring unity and wholeness to a fractured world by breaking the shackles of dogma, of human inventions and human opinions that historically have been used to justify division, persecution, even bloodshed. Barton Stone, the Campbells, and the other pioneer preachers of our movement rightly saw that legends moving beyond the biblical text were temptations to erect dangerous dogmas in the service of tribalism and sectarianism, and said, “no, thank you. We’ll speak where the scriptures speak, and remain silent where they are silent” And we’re grateful that they did.
But once the shackles of dogma are broken, once we’ve refused to allow tradition to hold us prisoner, we become free to appreciate those traditions, not as authorities, but things of beauty in their own right. Just as we can now appreciate the grandeur and wonder of the art and architecture of ancient Egypt because we’re not in any danger of being enslaved to Pharaoh these days, so, too, can we appreciate the very human and very holy work being done by the ancestors of our faith heritage who dreamed up these wonderful legends.
There are legends which explore the background of Jesus’ family. There are infancy gospels, which give us legends of Jesus’ childhood, some of which have him learning to grow into his role by using his powers to do some pretty un-Jesusy things. We have legend that follow the apostles beyond the Book of Acts as they work miracles and spread the gospel throughout the world. The x-shaped St. Andrew’s cross on our Disciples logo comes from one of these legends.
It’s always possible that there are kernels of historical truth to be found in the core of the legends. Some genuinely remembered fact that happens only to survive in the midst of a more fantastic story. The legends of Peter and Paul being martyred in Rome have a respectable chance of being true. The source for Peter’s martyrdom by crucifixion also has him attempting to flee Rome, only to be turned back by an encounter with an apparition of Jesus. The source for Paul’s beheading also claims that milk flowed from his neck. There may indeed be some historical evidence recoverable from the legends, but that’s not really their point.
One legend I’d like to look at in our few minutes together this morning comes from the fifth and sixth centuries. It finds the apostles spread out around the world. All of a sudden, they are each caught up into the clouds and flown though the sky to reunite. In some versions, they are brought to Jerusalem and in others to Ephesus. There they learn that the Virgin Mary has come to the end of her life. In the oldest version, they gather at her tomb and discover it empty, and they conclude that she has been raised and taken up into heaven. In other versions of the story, they find her still laid out on her deathbed and witness her return to life and be assumed into the heavens. In some accounts, she never dies, but is taken up alive, like Enoch or Elijah.
The legend of the Assumption of Mary really took off in the medieval Church. Something about it really spoke to the Christian imagination. It has been celebrated in countless works of art over the centuries, and is commemorated on a feast day every August 15th. Our readings today come from the lectionary for that feast.
The Assumption legend’s importance for us is not as a factual account of things that really happened. Maybe they did, but inconsistent and fanciful legends from centuries after the fact don’t exactly count as strong historical evidence. Here Hitchens’ Razor kicks in: what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. No, this beautiful legend is important because of the impact it had on Christian hearts over the years and what that impact can tell us about our human lives today.
When Mary is assumed into heaven in this beautiful, legendary epilogue to the gospels, and there reunited with her Son, with choirs of angels singing her welcome, it’s certainly a great moment envisioned for her. But it’s not really for her. It’s not really about her. She doesn’t become a goddess to be adored. She merely receives the fullness of the salvation that our Christian story offers to all of us. In the gospel, Jesus says that his true mothers and brothers are all that do the will of the Father, all that follow him, all that are born of water and spirit, that is, all that live their lives as though they were laid down for the good of others.
Recall that our Christian story is about humanity being reconciled and brought up together into the compassion at the heart of the divine reality. The Psalmist once sang, “what is mortal man that you think of him?” The Assumption of Mary is an illustration that shines a spotlight on the immense value and dignity of all of us, of every person. We are all Mary, made worthy in the divine light of compassion of being caught up, of reigning with Christ as the angel choirs rejoice, that is, of flourishing to our fullest potential in lives that show the dignity of what it is to be human right here and now. The legend of the Assumption spoke to the human heart for centuries because it shows so clearly just how much that heart is worth.
The tragedy is we so often fail to recognize our own value and the value of those around us. I’ve been playing a bit with the double meaning of those words “assume” and “assumption” this morning. When people encountered Prince Adam, they assumed he was useless at best, never imagining him to hold within him the power of He-Man. That’s probably what spoke to me about the story as a child, dreaming my own dreams of what life may hold, quietly thinking to myself, “I have the power.”
Imagine what they would have assumed about the Virgin Mary early in her life. A poor young girl from Galilee, a rustic cultural backwater despised by the elites in the big city. A member of a tiny, oppressed nation occupied by the greatest and most ruthless empire of its day. A woman in age when women were little more than property, often to be traded off to the highest bidder by their fathers. A refugee, forced out of her homeland and into Egypt by Herod’s terrorism. An unwed mother, in an age where illegitimate children were thought accursed and the very Law of Moses called for death for women sexually active outside of marriage. People around Mary would have assumed she was the lowest of the low, seeing nothing in her of value, no potential but to live out her days in fear and want. Their assumptions would never have anticipated her Assumption.
Our assumptions have power, friends. When I see the man on the corner holding a cardboard sign, I can bring a whole imaginary story to my encounter with him, full of assumed negativity. When I minister to someone at the hospital going through drug rehabilitation for the sixth time, if I’m not careful, I can bring so much judgment rooted in my zero minutes spent walking in his shoes. When we encounter people of different races and cultures, people whose manners and customs are different and unfamiliar, people with different faith heritages, people with different families, different sexual and gender identities that we just can’t understand. Those poorer than us that make us cling to our wallets a little tighter and those richer that make us seethe with envy and contempt. Yes, our assumptions have power, but that power is only the ability to blind us to the immense dignity that lies in each of these people who make us uncomfortable, make us angry, make us afraid. We become as blind as those who would spit on a young unwed Galilean mother twenty centuries ago.
There is one assumption we can make that is the most dangerous of all. That’s the assumption that the way things have always been is the way things are supposed to be. We’re here in Kentucky, once a slave state. Think about what life was like for African-American people during slavery and the long shadow of Jim Crow. I may not be from here, but my own family roots are in Mississippi, so my people partook of the same evil that we did in Kentucky.
During that time, was there real hatred? Absolutely. But it wasn’t hatred that fueled slavery and Jim Crow. It wasn’t hatred that kept millions enslaved and oppressed. It was assumptions. I dare say that the average white citizen during Jim Crow did not feel hatred toward black people. I don’t imagine that my great-grandfather went about his days looking at every black persons thinking, “I hate you. I want you to suffer because that’s what you deserve.” He didn’t go about his days doing that. He did what we all do: he just went about his days.
White dominance was just the way things were. The way things had always been. It seems perfectly natural to assume that the way things have always been is the way things should be. There’s a dominant class, so, naturally, it seemed they had the right to dominate. You don’t see real hatred become widespread until those assumptions were challenged. When black people began demanding recognition of their equal dignity, sometimes carrying signs that read simply “I Am a Man,” then the world started looking unfamiliar. That’s frightening. Fear fueled hatred, and the Jim Crow establishment pushed back brutally, leaving us images that are difficult to watch today.
Just this wekend, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia gave us more images that are difficult to watch. The power of assumptions was on full display. Much of the fuel behind the alt-right and white nationalism is the assumption that because white Christians have been the dominant force in our nation’s history, we—we, white Christians—should remain so. They see the face of our nation changing. Hispanic Christians, Muslims, the Hindus and Sikhs they confuse for Muslims, empowered women, African Americans and gay people moving toward full civil rights, transgendered people gaining the basic right to exist. Fear morphs into anger, and marchers carrying torches demanding white Christian supremacy, shouting “you will not replace us,” imagine themselves champions of greatness.
They are champions only of shame. Fueled by the power of assumptions, they would have their torches blind us to the dignity and value of every person. Yesterday, their march for the right to be blind and to blind others led to the death of three people, a peaceful counter-protestor and two state police officers. What must sicken us is that, as white Christian Americans, these marchers spoke in our name.
We must stand up, brothers and sisters, stand up and condemn all violent ideologies, but most especially white Christian nationalism. We must denounce fear and hatred. We must say clearly that we reject the supremacy they want to give us. We reject hatred, we reject oppression, we reject violence, we reject being on the wrong side of history and the nonsense of imagining that others obtaining what is theirs by right is somehow persecution of us.
We are the people not only of the Book, but of the Table. The gospel tradition of Jesus welcoming outcasts to dine together lives on in what we do around this altar each Sunday. That same legacy is being used by fellow Christians to justify excluding others from the wider table of society. Excluding others from the table is the one sin in 1 Corinthians that Paul says makes one unworthy to dine at communion. The one sin that can make us eat and drink judgment unto ourselves. Yesterday, fellow Christians marched proudly for the imagined right to eat and drink judgment unto themselves. May our response always be instead, “come to the table.” May our commitment be to strive to see each and every human face as if it had been assumed into heavenly glory to reign with Christ with choirs of angels singing in celebration. Just like a young, unwed, refugee mother 20 centuries ago.