Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Urgent Need for Compassion - Building a Collective Voice to Address the devastating Concerns of American Society

Mindful of the week of Compassion February 21- 28 and that we are now in the season of Lent, a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter, and a time of self-examination and reflection are a means to awaken to the joy of God within.  These have been and still are significant responses, a means to exhale, if you will, as I and others engage distinctions such as racism. Today’s message, based on the lectionary text for this week, Proverbs 91:1-2, 9-16 and Romans 8b-13 seeks to provide sustenance as we daily seek to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ of Nazareth in the midst of the complexities of the human condition, while holding firm, through our confession of Jesus Christ, to the intimacy of God’s care and concern and the urgent need for Compassion.

Society has taught me to embrace separation, to define myself as an individual, responsible to self and family, and extended family of faith.  This is good and right yet the call of Jesus Christ as lived out by the Apostle Paul calls you and me to so much more.

The life and dynamic ministry of the Apostle Paul reminds me that a calling of the one who would profess Jesus Christ is to break down distinctions, those barriers, racially, culturally, religiously, the constructs of gender and sexuality which beset, hinder or deny the fullness of humanity and the manifestation of the beloved community of Jesus Christ.  A proud Roman citizen, Paul knew the power, privilege and allure of distinctions as a tool to give the illusion of superiority, divide, define, characterize and shape life in imperial Rome.  By his conduct Paul makes it clear that distinctions have the potential to create disparities and disparities multiple levels of oppression and inequality and an imagination sequestered and bound to the narrow confines of tribal and/or imperial ideology and desire, and as such they are a denial of, and even irrelevant to the gospel message of Jesus Christ as received by the Apostle Paul. One Lord for All, racial, cultural and religious distinctions irrelevant. Further, distinctions have the potential to inhibit empathy and understanding necessarily hardening the heart towards the suffering of those less fortunate.

This thought on distinctions occurs once again in Galatians 3:28, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.  The implications of the Paul’s words are the transformation of social, cultural and religious institutions, systems and structures from modes of distinction as determined by the desires of the  culture, and those in power towards a means of grace and mercy grounded in Christ Jesus. More so the Apostle Paul, through words and conduct sought to build a Church not in bondage or beholden to the worldly desires of the age.

Recently while at anti-racism training there was a question posed by the facilitator.  The question was, “how do you introduce something new into an organization?  My response was that you have to be slow and gradual, listening to the people and the culture of the organization and in the process establishing relationships. As someone who has introduced a different narrative in various contexts I am aware that the process of introducing new ideas, concepts and narratives takes patience, consistency and listening. It becomes a means to cultivate compassion. 

Orchot Tzaddikim, a teacher of compassion within the Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, a 19th century ethical, educational and cultural movement, compassion is an extremely noble trait. It is one of the thirteen traits attributed to the Holy One, Blessed be the Holy One, as it is written: "Compassionate and gracious,." All that one can do to cultivate this trait, they should exert themselves to do. Just as one would want compassion on others who are in need.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” 1967
 “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”

In light of the words Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, cultivating compassion, (and I'm thinking on the many Civil Rights Activist who made a way for others and future marginalized communities here) is a means to awaken to life, community and destiny. It is urgent and unless this urgent need to cultivate compassion is addressed there will continue to be racism, poverty, inequality, police brutality and many other oppressions both personal and systemic with the very real potential to lead down a path of terror. We should be mindful of this as we listen to the various candidates share their agenda's about making America great again!

Compassion both for ourselves and others is a means to awaken and to build a collective voice to address the devastating issues which plague American society today in the 21st century.  Only through a collective voice will we be able to throw off those would divide and oppress.

According to the Greater Good Science Center located at UC Berkeley compassion is deeply rooted in human nature; it has a biological basis in the brain and body. Humans can communicate compassion through facial gesture and touch, and these displays of compassion can serve vital social functions, strongly suggesting an evolutionary basis of compassion. And when experienced, compassion overwhelms selfish concerns and motivates altruistic behavior.

A healthy life is a compassionate life, so cultivate compassion 

While the weapons of war, politics and capitalist economics inflict pain and terror as means to change or transform or conquer people and societies, lasting change, even transformation occurs as we cultivate compassion within and without necessarily building a movement of profound care, concern, peace and justice and in this the gospel of Jesus Christ would be made real.

Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.
Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.
Let us be aware of the source of being,
common to us all and to all living things.
Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion,
let us fill our hearts with our own compassion—
towards ourselves and towards all living beings.
Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be
the cause of suffering to each other.
With humility, with awareness of the existence of life,
and of the suffering that are going on around us,
let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.
— Thich Nhat Hanh – in Singing The Living Tradition – #505

Monday, February 1, 2016

To Tell the Truth, The Rejection of Jesus by His Hometown People

The lectionary text this week, Luke 4:21-30, provides some grim humor as we read of the rejection of Jesus by the congregation of his hometown of Nazareth.  There is Jesus, having proclaimed his call out of Isaiah 61:1, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and then we have the townspeople, many who had known Jesus as he was growing up.  They knew him and his family, as they said, is not this Joseph’s son, in effect saying that Jesus was not the Messiah, or a prophet, or anyone great.  Now Jesus being Jesus and knowing his congregation, a people of Nazareth, a city of ill repute, he read the skepticism, contempt and blatant dishonor running rampant among the congregation and become irrate, even insulted regarding the whole matter.  The Gospel of Mark 6:1-6, the earlier text, the situation is described as suspicious, hostile, even resentful because he had worked miracles at Capernaum and other places before.   According to the interpreter’s bible “The people were astonished but it was a grudging and sour astonishment.”  Having known Jesus for many years before he answered the call of God, the people asked, among themselves, what I would consider logical questions such as, “How did Jesus get all of this wisdom?”, “How did he learn to preach and teach so well?”  Yet the logic of their questions only made the scandal of their hearts more pronounced. At this point Jesus, being amazed at their lack of faith, begins to “tell the truth” meaning he was frank, bold and truthful in his encounter with the congregation of his townspeople. 

 I remember when I was growing up I would hear people in Church, school and/or on the street say, “To tell the truth” typically it was an introduction to some pretty heavy stuff, somewhat derogatory about an individual, group or organization, they might even pick a fight.     

This was the case when Jesus compared the people in the congregation with the people who lived in Elijah’s and Eliseus’ times who were unworthy of the miracles of God, due to their idolatry and disbelief, that God ministered to the non-Jew.  This did not go over well at all as they rose up, and thrust him out of the city and led him to the edge of the hill where they were going to throw him over but he passed through the midst of them, went his way.

There are three points which arise out the text.  The Call of Jesus, A Prophet is not without honor except in his or her hometown, queering love, expectation and rejection, and the Courage to Love, Doing God’s work in the Midst.

I.                 The Call of Jesus  

Mindful of the Call of God upon Jesus his beloved son, the call of God upon a person’s
life is one of the most intimate moments a person will experience.  It can be fearful, terrifying, joyful, even stunning, leaving one speechless, to say the least, even in the presence of witnesses.  The call of God is that one moment when the mystical confronts the staid practical sensibilities of human existence.  According to the interpreter’s bible, “They are possessed by the purifying and inspiring purpose of God, then for the first time the soul finds for itself an immense and joyous freedom.  The one called is God’s expressed desire beyond office, position or pedigree, and so was the call of Jesus. Yet the calling of God is not without significant concerns and challenges as the one called moves in the midst of the people, even a hometown crowd whose desires have been shaped by systems, structures and processes of Oppression and Privilege as established by ruler and authority written in Ephesians 6:12,

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the
powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of 
wickedness  in the heavenly places.    

II.        A Prophet is not without honor except in his or her hometown, queering love, expectation and rejection

Queering love, expectation and rejection is a means to look at the foundations of these three conversations which frame the encounter of Jesus and the congregation.  Where do they come from, what gives love and expectation and even rejection “credibility and pivotal importance in the situation?” 

 In a summary – Now Jesus had been victorious over Satan in the wilderness and had "gone back to his hometown in the power of the Spirit" to give his initial sermon in Nazareth his hometown. He had accomplished this by beginning with the prophet Isaiah and a passage about true change and transformation. However, in this passage he takes the congregation to task in his old home town and almost suffers a premature demise because of it.

First, “Why did Jesus return to his hometown to give his inaugural address?”  Surely he knew what might happen, what their response or reaction might be.  Nazareth was in the working class region of Roman-controlled Galilee. It was home to farmers and tradesmen – and a bit of the rabble or mob, crowd or gang as defined by Webster’s, it was a rough town. Nazareth was not a town of privilege and wealth, in fact it was a town of ill repute, as Philip says to Nathanael in John 1:46, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” I suspect it was love that caused Jesus to return to his hometown, even though he had a pretty good idea what might happen.  The depth of Love Jesus displays by returning to his hometown emerges from his oneness with God and nowhere else.  I can’t help but reflect on the Protestors of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s whose love proved courageous in the face of the manifest hatred of Bull Conner and his dogs.  The protestors knew the situation they were facing but love as a matter of justice compelled them to brave the storm.  This is Jesus in action!!!

Second, Jesus had encountered a congregation of people whose imagination inclusive of expectations was sequestered at the feet of both Jewish religious authority and Roman authority.  The rejection of Jesus reveals in supreme degree that God’s truth may come in ways we do not choose to recognize. To a lesser degree this is the case today as God daily deposits gifts for the life of the Church in people formally rejected. The Church is being transformed by God in our midst and we are a part of that transformation.  

Third, Rejection.   In the midst of this struggle described in Ephesians 6:12, there are times, more often than not, when the one called of God will experience rejection yet this rejection can reveal particular passion, even joy, as the ministry of ones calling is defined.  It is ironic that the rejection of Jesus by his hometown people became significant in shaping and defining his ministry.  It became a means toward profound hope for those who might receive salvation.  Rejection, problematic as it is on many levels, can lead us to a hopeful experience as we move on to greener pastures knowing that God is our refuge as written in Psalm 71:1-6,  

In You, O Lord, I put my trust;
Let me never be put to shame.
Deliver me in Your righteousness, and cause me to escape;
Incline Your ear to me, and save me.
Be my strong refuge,
To which I may resort continually;
You have given the commandment to save me,
For You
are my rock and my fortress.
Deliver me, O my God, out of the hand of the wicked,
Out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man.
For You are my hope, O Lord GOD; You are my trust from my youth. By You I have been upheld from birth;
You are He who took me out of my mother’s womb.
My praise
shall be continually of You.

III.              The Courage to Love, Doing God’s work in the midst.  

Today’s lectionary text Luke 4:21-30, the rejection of Jesus, is a reminder that the call of God may lead us into harm’s way, a place of danger.  It is also a reminder that following Jesus can lead us to difficult and challenging conversations with family, friends and the larger society with the possibility of rejection.  Yet we are infused with the power of the Holy Spirit and in this we are fearless in the face of great danger.   

Rabindranath Tagore writes, “Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in the face of them.”  –  

A study of the great movements for social justice as defined by the life and ministry of Jesus Christ finds a people infused with the spirit of the living God. They go into harm’s way aware of the issues, challenges and the danger manifest.  In this they become the Inbreaking of God and in the sense they are the prophetic movement of God in the order of the Christ.   

I remember being on a tour at the Washington National Cathedral and seeing the many statuettes around the massive sanctuary.  Statuettes such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  My impression as I looked at the statuettes was that each person was determined and courageous to love.  They were firm in their purpose and resolute in their cause.  Their Love, even in the face of manifest hatred and death would not be deterred. This is our calling as Disciples of Christ, “To be determined and courageous in our love.” 

Cornel West writes, “To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely - to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.”  -  

This is the way of the Christ, that whatever manifest hatred be present, a determination and courage to love overcomes and in this our hope, and our salvation is indeed real.   

Life changes and is transformed as love becomes the center and determining factor of our actions. 

Let us now walk, infused with the Holy Spirit, determined and courageous in a love grounded in Jesus Christ.