Jesus in the Mirror, Part 1

Audio of sermon preached Sunday, October 15, 2017 at Erlanger Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Erlanger, Kentucky.

 

(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A)

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On He-Man, the Virgin Mary, and Charlottesville

(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.

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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.

Assumption-mary

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.

charlottesville

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.

The Very Best of the Human Spirit

 

This is adapted from a sermon preached on Sunday of Independence Day Weekend at the hospital chapel.

On July 9, 2016, 24 year-old Brian Bergkamp and four friends made the most of a beautiful summer day by kayaking on the Arkansas River in Wichita, Kansas. Brian attended my alma mater, Conception Seminary College, and there prepared to enter into ministry. I didn’t know him, as I graduated a few years before he began his studies, but Conception is a very small school, tucked away in the remote rolling hills of Northwest Missouri, and a place with a sort of distinctive and timeless character, so all of us who have called it home at some time or other over the years share a certain bond. Conception’s motto is “the love of Christ compels us,” and, every so often, one of our number stands out as having lived into that motto. When that happens, we all share in a certain grateful pride. I can claim nothing more heroic than being a typical student, managing to pry myself out of bed and make it to class, most of the time. Or, some of the time, anyway. But every so often, one of our number really does prove the power of a life compelled by self-giving love.

Young Brian was such a person. Brian Bergkamp demonstrated the very best of the spirit of our college, the very best of the spirit of this nation, which we celebrate this weekend, and the very best of the human spirit. While enjoying the camaraderie of his friends and the freedom of spirit one experiences in the great outdoors, disaster struck. The kayaks hit an unexpected patch of especially rough and rapid water, and one of Brian’s friends, a 26 year old woman, fell in without a life jacket. There she struggled against the current, vainly trying to keep her head above water. Rather than paddle himself to safety, Brian remained in the rapids, reaching out to offer his friend her life jacket. By risking his own safety, Brian saved her life. In the process, his kayak overturned, and the 24 year old was washed away and drowned. His remains would be found several days later.

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Memorial to Bergkamp by the 21st Street Dam on the Arkansas River

The love that compelled Brian Bergkamp to lay down his life for his friend, that love which is the most beautiful, most powerful, and greatest capacity of the human spirit, that love which tells us that only be giving ourselves away do we become who we truly are–this love is made possible by that same insight that lays at the foundation of our country.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The enlightened words of our Declaration of Independence, penned 241 years ago, recognize that a society in which people can live freely and happily is only possible when the equal dignity of all persons is recognized and protected. The free and happy life is the life of one who is able to look into the face of another and see, for all the differences that may separate them, someone just like himself or herself, someone of equal value. Only then is the real, self-giving love, a love that would lay down its life for its friends, that love which is the pinnacle of what it means to be human, possible.

We know all too well that between the ideal laid out in the Declaration and the reality of life, there is a wide chasm, with waters as rapid as the Arkansas River. We know that the man who wrote those beautiful words also held fellow men and women in bondage as slaves, that the nation built on the foundation of those words would enshrine slavery into its Constitution. We know that “all men are created equal” would take years to be read as including women. We know that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of the native peoples of this land would be treated as far from unalienable. We know, too, that for all the progress we’ve made living into these ideals, there is still much work to do, still people kept on the margins, viewed as outsiders, unloved, unwanted.

But we press on, with gratitude for the ideals handed us by our founding fathers. We press on confident that the human spirit is stronger than its weakest link, that fear, hatred, and bigotry are no match for the power of love. May this Republic, rooted in the greatest ideals of the human spirit, stand for ages to come, as a place where that love can thrive ever more fully.

 

Walking in Integrity: A Father’s Day Sermon from the Depths

This is adapted from a Father’s Day sermon I preached today in the hospital chapels.

A few moments ago, we heard some of the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs speaking to fathers and children about their relationships. Proverbs also has a word of advice for us preachers in chapter 17 and verse 28: “Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his mouth is esteemed a man of understanding.” Preachers often share little tidbits about their own lives to help us connect with our congregations and build a bridge between the biblical themes we’re exploring and the nitty gritty of everyday life. But there’s a temptation that we have to resist, a temptation to overshare, to turn the focus onto ourselves and make it all about us. In those moments, the figure of Solomon calls out to us from the mists of time and legend: “Shutteth thy mouth, preacher!”

Today is one of those times that I’m in danger of focusing too much on my own stuff. It’s an especially difficult and challenging day for me, difficult and challenging to find a word of inspiration. Today, we celebrate Father’s Day. My own dad passed away less than a month ago, at only 61 years of age. We gathered together back in my hometown of Joliet, Illinois. Gathered as a family, with loved ones coming from Florida, from West Virginia, from Mississippi. We gathered and were supported by our friends and by his friends, from various times of his life. When the time came to lay him to rest, we gathered for a memorial at the same church with whom both he and I grew up, the church where he was baptized and married to my mom, the church where I was baptized and first preached the gospel and presided at the Lord’s Table. Standing where I first preached over 25 years ago, I offered a eulogy, celebrating him as a man whose love for his family was his major driving force, a champion who bravely faced the dragons of this life in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to.

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Altar prepared for Father’s Day worship services in the chapel.

In his sermon during the memorial, Matt Bassford, the church’s preacher, made a statement that my dad’s life story was in large part the story of his struggles with his flaws. That wasn’t an insult. It wasn’t insensitive. The challenges of this life left my dad with many deep wounds, many of the same kinds of destructive patterns that we treat here in this facility. Victories, moments of peace seemed for him always temporary, and then the battles would begin again. Though in his final months the toll his struggles had taken on his body was making itself deeply felt, his final months, I celebrated at the memorial and celebrate again today, were also a time of great emotional healing, a time of reconnection with loved ones, a time of reflection on his life story and the attainment of a real sense of peace and completion.

Even in those times in his life when his struggles were at their greatest, when it was all he could do to keep going on, his love for us was never in question. Being our dad was at the very center, the very heart and soul of who he considered himself to be. Flawed? Definitely. The moment growing up when we recognize that our parents aren’t perfect may be tough, but it’s essential to growing up. Perfection is not in the mother or father’s job description. Perfection is not, but integrity is.

“The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him” (Proverbs 19:26). To walk in integrity is to move toward knowing who we really are and toward acting with authenticity. Notice, I don’t speak of it as arriving at a destination, but rather as setting our sights forward and moving in that direction. Walking in integrity does not require that all of our convictions are true and that all of our actions are in line with those convictions. Rather, it requires that we be open to truths wherever they come from, no matter how challenging, that we form our convictions accordingly, and that each day we move closer to bringing them to fruition. Sometimes we may find ourselves feeling stuck, feeling as though the life we’re in doesn’t match who we know ourselves to be. We may not be able to snap our fingers and instantly transform. Instead, we commit to transitioning ever closer. It’s a lifelong project, and it helps to have supportive people around us, and to be those supportive people for those we encounter along the walk.

To walk in integrity is to recognize both our gifts and our wounds, our strengths and our flaws. It is to use the gifts we have in service of one another, to leave behind a world with just a little bit more kindness, a little bit more compassion, a little bit more cooperation, a world where we’ve cast our nets just a little bit wider. A world in which our children are blessed after us. To walk in integrity is to know our woundedness, and to seek healing, to know our weaknesses and seek recovery. A life spent struggling with our flaws is a life lived walking in integrity. It is the example we should hope every father sets for his children.

On this Father’s Day, while I continue to mourn his loss, still searing, still fresh, I am grateful that I had a dad who walked in integrity, even when he could only limp. My heart is with others for whom this day is difficult, because they, too, are grieving, or because their relationships call to mind hurtful memories. I’m grateful for all the fathers out there pouring themselves out in loving service for their children. We’re all in this life together, friends, and the work of forming and shaping the lives of the next generation, the work of fathers and mothers, is the holiest work of all.

A New Vision of Greatness

Audio of a sermon I was privileged to preach this morning for Antioch Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Lexington, Kentucky. In it, I said “the disciples were first called ‘Christians'” backwards at a congregation named “Antioch,” and they were kind enough not to lynch me!

 

I Haven’t Blogged on the Election…

…or its fallout, and, on a totally unrelated note, this is a sermon I had occasion to preach last year in a graduate course in Homiletics. The sermon envisions as a fictive audience a rural, blue collar congregation in southern Indiana.

(I hope to begin regularly posting new material after the New Year. I, you know, probably won’t, but I hope to. Until then, I’ll be dumping more old stuff here.)