Overshadowed by Love

February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration

The reading for today in the narrative lectionary is found in Luke 9. It’s the story of the transfiguration. Eight days earlier—one week earlier—Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying that he is. His disciples throw out “John the Baptist” and “Elijah.” Peter speaks up and says, “You are the Messiah of God; the Christ.” Jesus tells them not to tell anyone and then talks about what is coming as he makes his way to Jerusalem. He will suffer, be rejected, he will be killed and raised from the dead three days later. And he told them about what it meant to be his disciples: Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.

The writer of Luke tells us none of the reactions of the disciples other than to leave a week of silence in the story. Jesus has dropped the word of what will happen to him and what is required of those who will follow him and the next thing we hear is where our story this afternoon picks up.

Listen for the Word of God.
Read 9.28-36

The following day, the disciples and Jesus come down from the mountain and are met by a large crowd. There is a man whose son is possessed by a demon and the man begs for healing for his son. He tells Jesus that his disciples have been unable to cast out the demon. Jesus is able. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the boy and gave him back to his father.

So what happens in those eight days? The days after Jesus has told them what is going to happen when they get to Jerusalem. News that they do not want to hear. Are they stunned? Are they in denial? Do they scatter? Go back to fishing? Do they pretend Jesus didn’t say what he said?

We don’t know. What we know from the story is that Jesus took three of the disciples, Peter, John and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. I suspect Jesus—who has an idea about what he will face in Jerusalem—is in need of spiritual strength. And so he takes his companions and together they go to a place away from the crowds to be in God’s presence.

Do you remember the fog from last Monday morning? A friend of mine who walks early in the morning said he was taking his regular route but at one point he lost his bearings. Everything looked so different in the fog. He was in a place where he had been before but the landmarks were obscured because of the fog. It’s a disorientating—even frightening experience—when you’re enveloped by fog. Even though you would ordinarily know what is right in front of you now you’re not so sure what is ahead.

I wonder if the cloud that overshadows Jesus and Peter, James and John is a little like that. Luke writes that a cloud overshadowed them and they entered the cloud. From other stories in the Bible we know that the cloud is the presence of God. Jesus and Peter, James and John, are overshadowed by the presence of God.

This word that gets translated “overshadow” is related to a Hebrew word that means “right smack dab in the middle” and “completely surround by.” It’s like that experience of fog all around you. Which can be frightening and unsettling. It can also be holy and mystical.

The language of overshadow also shows up in the annunciation story where an angel comes to Mary and says she will have a baby and that baby will be the Child of the Most High God. When Mary asks how it will be that she will have a baby, given some physical constraints in her life, the angel says the power of God will overshadow her.

This experience on the mountain is one of glory and wonder and awe. It is probably not what Peter, James and John were expecting and Peter, particularly, isn’t exactly sure what to do with it. He’s ready to erect an historical marker or take a selfie with Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Something to sort of concretize the experience that he knows is monumental but perhaps doesn’t really know its significance.

In the overshadowing cloud, the presence into which the disciples enter right into the middle of, the disciples hear a voice—it’s almost the same voice they heard at Jesus’ baptism—“This is my Child, my Chosen, my Beloved.”

I wonder if the disciples aren’t going to need this experience for the coming days when their life with Jesus is tested, when they aren’t sure who they are or who Jesus is. When they’re not sure whether to stay or flee. I wonder if in those uncertain moments they will remember the glory, the dazzling radiance, the overshadowing, the confirming voice. I wonder if they will remember that and draw strength and courage from their experience?

Eight years ago in January, I was on my way to fly across the country to be part of an experience that would change my life for good in some profound ways. I knew a little bit of what I was signing up for but I was also really nervous.

That January morning was snowy and when I walked out the door to go to the airport and there in the tree in front of our house was a bright red cardinal.

From the time I was in middle school, seeing a cardinal—the red song bird (not the UofL mascot)—was many times a sign, for me, of God’s presence and care. I didn’t grow up where there were cardinals but they appeared at times in my life when I was scared and uncertain and in need of encouragement.

In that moment, eight years ago, I experienced God say to me, “I am with you.”

I wonder if you’ve had an experience of beauty or love or holiness? We Presbyterians don’t talk about this sort of thing very much but what people confide in me tells me that lots of people do have these sorts of experiences. But we’re not sure what to do with them or how to talk about them.

This afternoon, I invite you to remember a time when you experience unexpected beauty or love or holiness. Perhaps something that took your breath away. And maybe you wanted to stay just in that moment.

If you’d like, you can close your eyes. You might ask God to bring to your remembrance an experience. Trust whatever comes into your heart or mind.

I’m not going to ask you to share this with anyone so let yourself be free to remember whatever it is that God is bringing to your awareness.

Be with that memory.

What is it that you felt? That you saw? That you heard?

I wonder if there is a gift you received.

In the silence of your own heart and mind, give thanks for this experience and the ability to return to it.

When you are ready, open your eyes and bring your awareness back to this place.

What we hear next in the story of the Transfiguration is that Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain to return to their ministry. And so do we. And this presence, this memory, this awareness, this gift of God, goes with us.

No matter what this day has been like,
no matter what the days ahead will bring,
whatever the action is that we need to take,
we can return to this gift, this experience,
and draw courage and strength for whatever will come.

 

Blessing and sending
May the nourishment of this table
and the sustenance of this community
be part of the overshadowing presence of God
that goes with you everywhere and at all times.

The Word We Don’t Want to Hear

February 19, 2017 – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5.38-48

My sermon title is “The Word We Don’t Want to Hear” because, as you heard me to talk with the kids, what Jesus tells us to do is really hard.

Yesterday afternoon I saw the documentary about (but also more than just about) James Baldwin titled “I Am Not Your Negro.” It’s currently sold out at the Speed Cinema but will open in early March at Village 8 Theatres. I highly recommend it. It is not an easy film to watch but the truth James Baldwin speaks is so important for us to hear. We who are white need to hear it. And what I heard from African Americans in the audience is that as hard as it was to experience, there was something affirming about having the truth of one’s life named.

When I got to the theater, I was thinking about my sermon for this morning. Thinking about what Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer….Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Part of “I Am Not Your Negro” is James Baldwin’s reflection on his relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Medgar Evers worked for the NAACP investigating injustice. Evers, Baldwin wrote, was a “peaceful man, who had constantly urged that violence is not the way.”[1] On June 12, 1963, Medger Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his home in front of his family members by a Ku Klux Klan member. “So much for not resisting an evildoer,” I thought to myself.

Malcolm X “exhorted blacks to cast off the shackles of racism ‘by any means necessary,’ including violence.”[2] Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965 in a ballroom in Manhattan, where he was preparing to deliver a speech. “Resisting an evildoer doesn’t save you either,” I thought.

Dr. King, of course, was a proponent of non-violence, learning the ideals of it from Jesus and the “operational techniques from Gandhi.”[3] In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” on the same text we have heard this morning, he says, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiples hate, violence multiples violence…into a descending spiral of destruction.”[4] On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Dr. King was assassinated. “Loving your enemies does not protect your life either,” I thought.

It would be so much easier if these words of Jesus were just ethereal admonitions. You know, great ideals but nothing we’re ever going to actually do in our real lives.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we didn’t have to deal with our enemies? If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof you probably remember this exchange. Someone asks the rabbi, “Is there a proper blessing for the tsar?” The rabbi ponders, “A blessing for the tsar?…Of course…May God bless and keep the tsar…far away from us!”

But the kind of evildoers and enemies Jesus talks about are not just a few people from whom we can distance ourselves. In the Jesus’ day it was the entire oppressive and coercive system of the Roman empire. And for Dr. King and Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and James Baldwin it was not one or two Klans men, it was an entire entrenched, and legalized, system of white supremacy which remains largely in place today, remodeling its method from enslavement to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to gutting voting rights to whatever this period of time after President Obama will come to be called.

75 years ago today, February 19, 1942, three months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, another President signed an Executive Order. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

“The order allowed the secretary of war to declare that an area was a military zone, clearing the way for more than 110,000” people of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, who were living in Washington, Oregon, and California, to be evacuated and interned.[5] They were forcibly moved inland, without a hearing or a trial to internment camps (also called concentration camps by some historians). They were allowed to take with them only what they could carry, leaving behind homes and businesses, farms, possessions and communities in which they had been respected and contributing members.

Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” How does that even make any sense in the face of white supremacy? How does that make sense in the face of evil?

Let me offer a few possibilities that give me some way to tentatively move forward with this text—and maybe it will for you too.

This word “resist” in verse 39 is more, scholars say, about retaliation than about being passive. The Greek word for “resist is usually used in military contexts referring to armed resistance.” Talk of armed resistance was not an abstract conversation. Pastor Karen Sapio tells us that “The appropriateness of violent resistance to the Roman occupation was a matter of intense debate in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day.”[6] One writer summarizes verse 39 to say, “Love does not retaliate.”[7] Retaliation and the violence which comes with it are not part of the realm of God. Eugene Peterson in his translation in The Message says it like this: “‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’”

In a recent interview, Representative John Lewis from Georgia talked about taking part of the lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s when he was in his 20s. A recent documentary about Rep. Lewis is titled, “Get in the Way”—which is what he has done his whole life. In both the interview and the documentary, Rep. Lewis  talks about the preparation for the sit-ins. There was serious training for this work including practice with the kind of physical and verbal abuse the young adults would experience when they asked to be served at the lunch counter.

Rep. Lewis said, “[We were trained that] if someone kick[ed] you, spit on you, pull[ed] you off the lunch counter stool, [we] continue[d] to make eye contact. Continue[d] to give the impression, ‘Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.’”

Krista Tippett, the interviewer, said, “In the way I come to understand this…the point of all of this role-playing was not just about being practically prepared. I suspect that some neuroscientist now in the 21st century probably understands what happens in our brains somehow with what you knew about that moment of eye contact and human connection. But you also understood this to be a spiritual confrontation, first within yourselves, and then with the world outside.”

Rep. Lewis responded, “You’re so right. First of all, you have to grow. [Nonviolence is] not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being.”[8]

Love does not retaliate, Jesus says.

Listen to how The Message translates verses 43-45. “You’re familiar with…‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.”

More than a decade ago, a church member said in the prayers of the people, “The Bible tells me to pray for my enemies so today I want to pray for [and he named the man who was President of the United States at the time].” There was a lot of laughter in the congregation but this church member was serious.

John Lewis again: “From time to time, [we] would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? [Did] something go wrong?…Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”[9]

In Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence, the third principle is, “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”[10]

James Baldwin asks, “How can you lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourself?”[11]

We white people are coming to see that white supremacy and systemic racism is damaging not just to people of color but it is also damaging to those of us who are white. It distorts our view of the world, of ourselves, of God’s creation. It makes us assume we are something we are not. As the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “We violate the image of God in others and ourselves, [and] accept lies as truth.”

So loving our enemies is not just our enemies, it is also for us.

Professor of Theology, Matthew Boulton, says Jesus calls us to a way of discipleship that “points toward a deeper, more radical resistance: namely, noncooperation in the underlying [system] of hate and brutality involved in evildoing…Jesus advises defiance—but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves, since this simply perpetuates and intensifies the relationship’s adversarial character, but rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making.” The endless cycle of you do something bad to me so I retaliate against you. Then you retaliate against me. And then I retaliate against you. And on and on until we both die and our children pick up the retaliation, back and forth. “Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather, fight fire with water, and therefore refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination.”[12]

Before “I Am Not Your Negro” began there was a preview for a movie to be shown at the Speed Cinema this coming the week. It’s called “Disturbing the Peace.”

The film is about people born into conflict, sworn to be enemies, who challenged their fate. The film follows former enemy combatants—Israeli soldiers from elite units and Palestinian fighters, many of whom served years in prison—who have joined together to challenge the status quo and say “enough.”[13] The film tells the story of their journey from being soldiers committed to armed battle to nonviolent peace activists.

In the trailer, a woman is challenging one of the Palestinians who has given up fighting and now is a nonviolence peace activist. “You think a small group like [yours] will change anything?” she asks skeptically. The former fighter turned peace maker responds, “Nelson Mandela, one person, was able to change the whole country. One man. How did he do that?”[14]

One man. One person. Nelson Mandela. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Rosa Parks. Or Ella Baker. Or Jesus. Disturbing the Peace. Getting in the Way. Loving Our Enemies.

It might seem crazy, naïve, even hopeless. But what other choice do we have? Continue the violence or choose another way?
* * * * *

[1] Quoted in printed notes for “I Am Not Your Negro,” 18 February 2017, Speed Art Museum Cinema.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 51.

[5] www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/japanese-american-internment-75-years-ago/, accessed 18 February 2017.

[6] Karen C. Sapio, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol. 1, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 111.

[7] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 193.

[8] www.onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-action/, accessed 18 February 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub2, accessed 18 February 2017.

[11] Quoted in “I Am Not Your Negro,” 18 February 2017, Speed Museum Cinema.

[12] Michael Myer Boulton, “Matthew 5.38-48 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word – Year A, Vol 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox press, 2010), 385.

[13] http://disturbingthepeacefilm.com/about/, accessed 18 February 2017.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A95PDQWr4xs, accessed 18 February 2017.