The Revolutionary and the Prince of this World Rev. Tania Guzman Today’s gospel reading is from the gospel of John, which is not one of my favorite gospels. You see, the gospel of John insists on elevating and exalting Jesus as a deity. The purpose of the gospel is stated in 20:30-31 where it says, […]
The Revolutionary and the Prince of this World
Rev. Tania Guzman
Today’s gospel reading is from the gospel of John, which is not one of my favorite gospels. You see, the gospel of John insists on elevating and exalting Jesus as a deity. The purpose of the gospel is stated in 20:30-31 where it says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
John has a very specific view of Jesus as deity. The book’s first words about Jesus are, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” It also has a specific view of “salvation” as only obtainable trough Jesus. It seems to lacks openness to non-believers, at least that is how it has too often been presented.
It is believed by many scholars that this gospel was written within and for a particular group of followers of Jesus known as the Johannine Community. And this particular community, not surprisingly, was thrown out of the synagogue for their strange believes.
So, you can understand why this is not one of my favorite gospels. But let me just say that when it comes to being suspicious of the books of the bible, I do not discriminate; I am suspicious of all of them. And I am suspicious of them for many reasons.
The first reason that always comes to mind is the different languages in which they were originally written and the translation from one language to the next. When different languages are involved things can be very confusing, misinterpreted, and in some cases even hilarious and embarrassing.
Point in case is something that happened to me when I first came to this country from the Dominican Republic when I was just a kid. I came to New York City, to the Bronx. And the very next morning after I got there, my mom’s friend took to the supermarket with her. And at the supermarket I saw something that I have only seen in TV before, a soda machine. I came from a very primitive place in the Dominican Republic. And when I saw this soda machine I got so excited and I went to get a soda and so I took some change from my pocket and put it in it. But I did not get a soda, instead there was just a flashing red word “dime”. I was a dime short but I did not speak English and I did not know what the English word “dime” was. But “dime” is also a Spanish word which means tell me. So I leaned forward and said Coca-Cola. See What I mean?
So besides all the other many issues, the problem of the different languages will always cause me to look at any book of the Bible with suspicion.
When I found out that I was going to preach on today’s reading, my reaction was, “oh guacala”. Guacala is the Spanish word for yuck. Today’s text has Jesus saying, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And my thought was “guacala” because when I first read the text the first thing that came to my mind was the bad theology and preaching from my upbringing about judgment and Satan and salvation only trough Jesus.
But my favorite preacher, our senior pastor the Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, encouraged me to find a positive and liberating message in the text.
So I looked at the context of the whole chapter, and I want to point out what is going on starting with verse 20 (12:20). It was the time of the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, and verse 20 says that among those who went up to worship during the celebration were some Greeks.” And the story tells us that “these Greeks” came to some of the disciples and asked to see Jesus. Actually it tells us that they specifically spoke with Philip and Andrews, Jesus’ two disciples who happened to have Greek names. This makes me think of the tensions between the cultures and how these non-Jewish people made their request to people who they probably felt save with because of their Greek names. And when Jesus is told that these people want to see him, he goes into a discourse which includes today’s text.
Now these Greeks were not Jewish converts, but they would come to Jerusalem during the time of festivals because they were attracted to the worship of the Jewish God and wanted to worship the Jewish God, but they were not committed to the observance of all the Jewish religious laws and rituals.
The problem is that since they were not Jewish, they were not allowed to worship at the temple as the Jewish people did. And they probably had heard of what Jesus did at the temple back in chapter 2 (the cleansing of the temple) when he was so angry at what the temple had become.
The Jewish Temple consisted of a series of courts that led to the Holy Place. The first court was the court of the Gentiles, then was the court of the Women, then the court of the Israelites (only males), and then the court of the Priests. The market place at the temple was set up at the court of the Gentiles denying them any chance at any kind of worship.
Many of us believe that this was one of the things that made Jesus so angry at what was happening at the temple. That is why in the Gospel according to Mark (11:17) during this incident Jesus said, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations?”
Knowing of this incident, these Greeks come wanting to see Jesus. They do not go to the temple where they know they will be excluded. When Jesus is told that there are some Greek people looking for him, he knew what this was about. He knew they were coming to him because he was the only one giving them any hope. So Jesus gives a discourse and among the many things he said is today’s text. And when Jesus talks about “the prince of this world” that will be driven out, he is not talking about the devil, there is no devil. “The prince of this world” is injustice and oppression. The unjust and oppressive religious, social and political system of this world. A system that needs to be driven out in order for there to be any justice and equality.
Maybe these Greeks were just intrigued that a Jewish person would come to their defense in such a risky way as Jesus did at the temple and they wanted to learn more about him. Or maybe they were deeply touched by Jesus’ actions and were becoming ready to follow him. The important thing is that they knew that they could come into this new community of Jesus regardless of who they were. And that is what the church should be today; a house of prayer for all people, LGTBQ, straight, Christian and Non-Christian.
The visit from the Greeks triggers something in Jesus that makes him talk about his death, the hour has come he said. Now, as we look at all four gospels we see that Jesus talked a lot about his death. But he predicted his death not because he had some supernatural power that allowed him to predict the future. No, Jesus could predict his death because he was a revolutionary and when you are revolutionary you know that death is at your door. He exposed and confronted the injustice and oppression of the political, social and religious powers. When you do that you get killed. I learned this as a kid in history class in the Dominican Republic where many have been killed in their courageous efforts to bring justice and end oppression.
So when the Greeks, the Gentiles, come looking for him, Jesus realized how far his revolution has reached and so he knew that death was at his door. But he believed, or at least hoped, that his death was not going to be in vane. In verse 24 he says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus’ hope was that his movement and revolution against the political, social and religious powers was not going to die with him, but that his followers and many others to come would continue in his foot steps, fighting against injustice and oppression. And that is how Jesus is lifted up and how people are drawn to what he stands for, when we step forward and follow his example. It is not about worshiping Christ, is about following Jesus. Jesus never meant for people to get all confused and worship him, what he hoped for was that we would continue the work that he did.
One of my favorite quotes is from St. Teresa of Avila, she says, “Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world, ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good, ours are the hands with which he blesses his people.”
And if we are true Christians, then ours is the revolution that Jesus got started. There is still so much work to be done in social justice; to promote human diversity, to care for the poor, to end racism and discrimination, to end sexism, to end homophobia. I believe that deifying Jesus and preaching and teaching that he died for our sings is a theology of lazy Christians. It is a lot easier to say Jesus died for my sins that to step out and do the work that Jesus did. No, Jesus did not die for anybody’s sins. God would never demand such a thing. Jesus died to make changes in this world, the same changes that we are supposed to be making today, because today “the prince of this world” (injustice and oppression) still needs to be driven out.
If we are true followers of Jesus then we have a lot of work to do. To close I want to leave you with a quoted from the great prophet Dr. Seusss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Amen
The hour has come
To trust in God’s presence in every moment of my life,
To be a true follower of Jesus,
And do as he did.
Rescue Me: A Fresh Look at “Salvation” Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral (Lent 4, 2012) John 3.17 Rescue Me (Cher video) What is more appropriate for Lent than a little known Cher recording of Rescue Me from the 1974 Dark Lady album? Nothing says Lent like vintage Cher! Of course that musical blast from […]
Rescue Me: A Fresh Look at “Salvation”
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral (Lent 4, 2012)
Rescue Me (Cher video)
What is more appropriate for Lent than a little known Cher recording of Rescue Me from the 1974 Dark Lady album? Nothing says Lent like vintage Cher!
Of course that musical blast from the past is not the only history being featured in today’s service. A very rich history actually comes from our tiny gospel reading this morning.
“God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Saved. From what? From our own wretchedness? I don’t believe that. From God’s out of control wrath? I don’t believe that either. From afterlife horrors? Nope, I’m not buying that either. So what is salvation? Well, it can mean health or wholeness or liberation. Those are appropriate understandings, but there is a more literal way to understand the word. Saved means to help one feel safe. I like MCC’s old definition of “salvation” in the Christian context. Salvation means to be saved from loneliness, degradation, and despair. YES, those are the things from which we need to be saved. We need to be saved from low self-esteem, from chronic fear, from habitual pessimism. OK, from those hurtful things, I would like to be saved. Now, why are words like saved and savior used in the gospel?
In ancient Greece, city states were often at war. So, warriors were posted to guard the city. If invaders came, the guarding forces protected the city at all costs. They would risk their lives for the safety of the city. Those warriors saved the city from outside threats.
Later, Rome is the world’s dominant military power. No longer are local warriors the saviors of the people; now Caesar is the savior. Of course, Caesar’s armies actually do the fighting, but Caesar gets the credit for the military successes.
Part of Caesar getting credit for the prosperity and security of the empire is titles that he gets to claim. And so he is a called a divine son (Caesar Augustus was adopted by his uncle Julius Caesar who was deified after he died, making Augustus the son of a god…a myth also developed saying that Augustus’ mother actually conceived her son with the god Apollo which, again, would make Augustus the son of a god). Some other emperors after Caesar were also declared divine either in their lifetime or after they died. So, Caesar was a divine son.
And as Caesar’s armies kept Rome safe from those who would try to topple Roman dominance, Caesar was also called Savior. Caesar, the divine son, was the savior or the Roman world, the empire.
Against THIS backdrop and in THIS world, the writer we call “John” challenges the Roman system.
Caesar may be a son of the gods, a divine son in Roman pagan theology, but Jesus is Jewish, and the Jewish people understood themselves to be the very children of God. One didn’t need to be an emperor to be a child of divinity; all faithful Jewish people understood themselves to be children of divinity. In fact, all people are the children of God.
Jesus is a reminder that WE are God’s children, not just Caesar, the lucky or the powerful. The people the Emperor wants to rule over insist they, not just him, are divine children and Jesus is the model of what a child of God looks like…not the upper crust, elite and powerful, but a poor, sometimes homeless carpenter hanging out with commercial fishers, lepers, prostitutes, the mentally ill, Samaritans, children and other people considered to be nobodies. God is with the so-called least of these!
And Caesar’s power lies in the imperial Senate and the vast armies, but Jesus’ followers find power not in wealth or political power or social privilege, but in choosing to believe in themselves and trusting that unjust circumstances do NOT define who they really are.
In the Roman world, the gods send the divine son, Caesar, to rule over the imperial world and to condemn and annihilate all who would oppose the empire.
But those who follow Jesus’ way and message have a very different understanding of the divine. And so John says,
God as we understand God did NOT send an emperor to rule over us or condemn us, but sent one of us to demonstrate that we are all children of God. We aren’t safe because of Caesar’s might, we are safe because no matter what happens in this life, in this Roman world, we are and forever will be part of a divine life that is beyond this world and never ends.
Or, more simply, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We don’t have an emperor in our country in the 21st century. Do we?
There are people still needlessly dying of AIDS in Africa because pharmaceutical companies in the US and Europe will not allow medicines to be produced more cheaply. People are dying because they can’t afford a thousand or two thousand dollars per month for medications which could be produced at a fraction of those costs. But that would interfere with profits, and profits are more important to some people than human lives. Of course, one need not go all the way to another continent to hear uncomfortable stories. In this country, in this state, in this county there is a waiting list for AIDS medications for those who can’t afford them. People HERE are waiting indefinitely for life-saving medications.
And so, greed could be said to be the emperor of our day.
In our state, just five months ago, the First Lady of the United States was booed at a NASCAR race. She has a purely ceremonial role by virtue of who she married. And she came to Florida as a gesture of goodwill to support military members and their families, and at the NASCAR event she did not give a speech, but was there only to watch and to say, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” And yet, when her name was announced, people in the audience booed. Has any other first lady been treated so disrespectfully by her fellow citizens? Do we doubt for a single second that was an expression of deep rooted racism?
Of course, more ghastly and more recent is the case of 17 year old Trayvon Martin who was killed just three weeks ago here in Florida. Walking home from the 7-11 with Skittles and iced tea, a neighborhood watch captain spotted him and called 911 saying he looked “suspicious”. The dispatcher said that officers would be there to check it out and to not pursue the young man. The neighborhood watch captain, named Zimmerman, did purse him in his car and not only that but got out of his car to interrogate the 17 year old and not only that, but brought his hand gun with him. You know from the papers what happened. Some sort of altercation took place and the unarmed teenager was shot and killed by Zimmerman who was told not to pursue him in the first place. PS, Trayvon Martin was African American; Zimmerman is not. And, Zimmerman, as of yesterday, still had not been arrested, not even for man-slaughter, not even for disturbing the peace.
Racism could be said to be the emperor of our day.
I’m a gay man. I’m in a committed relationship. It is long lasting: 12 years so far. A long-term, adult, consensual, loving, relationship and yet there are only 7 places in this country where I live, work and pay taxes where I can marry the person I love. That number may increase to 9 this year. And yet, those marriages are not honored by most other states, and 41 states prohibit, not just fail to offer but prohibit same-sex marriage…12 by statute and 29 by state constitution. I am, and many of you are, constitutionally second class citizens in 29 states in our country. Oh, and as far as those 7 states (well, 6 states and the District of Columbia) that currently concede that I am fully human, there are people today who want to be president who are campaigning on the promise to overturn those 7 states’ laws granting me full and equal protection under the law.
Homophobia, no, let’s be clearer, homo-hatred could be said to be the emperor of our day.
There is no bible verse, no matter how passionately it is quoted, that can make these expressions of greed, bigotry, and hatred seem less ugly and reprehensible than they obviously are.
And we haven’t the time this morning to address other problems such as poverty, child abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, sexism, drug addiction, etc. But there is work to be done and joy to be had in the doing of it.
We don’t call anyone Caesar these days, but there are still “powers and principalities” as the Apostle Paul would say, that threaten our well-being. And we can resist those powers. Jesus did. We can vote. We can choose to spend our money in friendly communities. We can share our stories. We can attend and support this progressive and empowering church. We can sign petitions. And we can stop fighting among ourselves which distracts us from major issues of injustice. And we can comfort one another when progress is slow. But what we cannot ever do is give up hope, and that’s what the gospel tells US today.
Caesar pops up, but that isn’t God’s plan, and God’s people must hold on to the sacred, liberating vision!
God did not ordain systems of oppression, but desires that all of God’s children be free, well, and safe. If we believe that is God’s will, we can find the courage to continue to work toward letting that will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We have work to do, as followers of Jesus always have. To be Christian isn’t to venerate Jesus, it is to follow him and following him means trying to build a more fair and just world. And as we answer the call to do the work of justice, through us, God’s children, the world will become a little safer; that is, through each one of us, God’s child, the world can be saved. And this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
I am safe in God’s love.
I am an instrument of healing for God’s world.
I embrace and share hope today.
And so it is.
“There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.” James Baldwin
Wake Up Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Lent 3 (2012) Sunshine Cathedral Nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson famously said, “They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of God as somewhat of a recluse.” My theology is pretty simple. Whatever the mystery of life that I choose to call God is, it […]
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Lent 3 (2012) Sunshine Cathedral
Nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson famously said, “They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of God as somewhat of a recluse.”
My theology is pretty simple. Whatever the mystery of life that I choose to call God is, it must be omnipresent.
Omnipresent means everywhere, fully present. And if God is omnipresent, then, as we’ve heard so often, “there’s not a spot where God is not.”
Like air, like light, light dust, like thought, like space…God must be everywhere all the time. And if God is everywhere, we can’t be separated from God. We can’t be lost from God. The Source and Substance of All That Is cannot be removed from all that is.
God is right where we are. “Wherever we are, God is” we say every Sunday morning. That is an affirmation of divine omnipresence. “It is in God that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28).
We are tempted to hold onto our childhood notions of God: God the gift giver – Santa God; God who delights in punishing us – the Marquis de God; or God who isn’t normally around but who will come to us when we call to carry our heavy burdens for us – the bellhop God. But none of those images are a universal presence in which we could live and move and have our being!
I like the psalmist’s view of God: “Where could I go from your presence? Where could I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139). There is no such place. God is the life-force of my being, the omnipresence in which I live, the Breath of life that is my life.
A couple of weeks ago we reviewed the creation myth from Genesis 2 & 3. In that ancient tale, the earth-being is made from the elements of the earth and God breathes life, spirit, into the newly formed human. The human’s life, from the beginning, is the very breath of God. God is the creative power that forms the human, and God is the life-breath that animates the human. There is no separation. There cannot be.
Now, later in the story, the earth-being goes into a deep sleep. But the story never says that ‘adam, the earth-being, the human ever wakes up. After the human goes to sleep…what happens starts to look like a nightmare.
The human sleeps and then experiences a rib being extracted without consent. Next there’s a magic tree and a talking snake and things just get really weird really fast, as they do in dreams.
The story showed us a garden paradise where we are meant to live in unity and communion with our divine source, but somewhere along the way we fall asleep and start to have a nightmare that God is beyond us, has abandoned us, and only by extreme measures could we ever get back to God. Religion shouldn’t be part of that nightmare; it should the alarm clock that tries to wake us from it!
That is precisely what our readings this morning are trying to do. The first reading from the psalter shows us divine life being not limited to sacraments and scriptures and church buildings and creeds. No, the power of divine life is in day and night, sky and space, everywhere we are and everywhere we could look. There’s not a spot where God is not!
The stories of Jesus being born in a barn, of an exiled Moses finding God in a burning bush, of Jonah being called to minister to his enemies the Ninevites, of Jesus being discovered by Persian astrologers, of Jesus eating with Prostitutes, advocating for children, and affirming Samaritans all are stories of God being exactly where we thought (or maybe even hoped) God would not be! Surely God is not accessible to Assyrians, or Ninevites, or prostitutes, or lepers, or kids, or Samaritans…or gays, or those who call ultimate reality something other than God, or those who have different political or economic philosophies. But the witness of our sacred texts insists that there is not a spot where God is not, which means that God is with the down-trodden, and with those of other religions and no religion, and is even with those we are tempted to call our enemies.
Then the epistle reading this morning, our second reading, shows us a God that is present in the places the world finds unlikely.
When people insist that God can’t be found in the love that two people of the same gender share, or that God couldn’t operate through the ministry of women, or that God can only be experienced by Christians, or by certain sects of Christians, they are saying that God is far removed from the human condition and from the lives we actually live. Their god is not an omnipresence. However, a god in which we live and move and have our being must be omnipresent, must be fully present wherever we are, whoever we are.
Those who insisted that Jesus was Messiah or Lord were making a crazy claim. Lords have power; they don’t get crucified like a common slave. Lords associate with nobles, senators, and generals, not with hookers, tax collectors, and lepers. For people to find a divine anointing on Jesus’ life defies worldly wisdom and notions of strength.
How can a rural peasant who is executed as a rebel against Rome be called Lord or Messiah? Caesar is dominus, Lord, of course. Caesar is called savior, a divine son, word of his conquests are called good news or gospel. But to all Jesus Lord or savior and to talk of his ministry as being good news, gospel, that is clearly an ironic, even seditious use of those imperial titles. How can you find Lordly power in a peasant? How can you find wisdom and hope and life-changing power in the words and example of a nobody? How can a poor peasant who ultimately suffers the indignity of capital punishment be called a savior or a lord, which are titles people call the great and mighty Caesar?
Because there is not a spot where God is not. Of course God can be found in a burning bush, or in an unwed homeless girl giving birth in a manger, or on a hill where riff raff are being crucified. That isn’t imperial, worldly logic, but it is the divine way, the way of omnipresent divinity. It seems foolish to the upper crust, to the so-called wise, but that’s why they aren’t waking up from their own nightmares yet.
And that leads us to the gospel reading.
This story is sometimes used to say churches shouldn’t have raffles or gift shops or rummage sales. That is not what this story is about. One, this is about the Temple, not about local congregations. And secondly, ministry must be funded and no ethical form of funding good works is every condemned in scripture. And thirdly, how super hyped up on caffeine would Jesus have to be to get THAT upset over a fundraiser?
No. You see, Roman coins with “graven images” of Caesar obviously can’t be used in the Temple, so the money had to be changed. Then with the non-idolatrous currency, people who traveled too far to bring their own sacrificial livestock could purchase animals for sacrifice. And what is a sacrifice? They kill an animal, but then the priests cook the animal and eat it and sometimes they share the meat at festivals with the community…it’s basically a barbecue.
So why is Jesus so upset? Well, if the moneychangers were charging for their services, then people were paying to exchange their money, then using their new money to buy animals, and then giving the animals to the temple as lunch meat. Basically, people are paying THREE times…paying to exchange the money, using the new money to buy an animal, and then giving away the animal. So, that may have seemed a little usurious to Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t mind sacrificial giving; didn’t he praise a poor widow for giving the last coins she had (the widow’s mite)? No, people are giving to what they believe in and are probably happy to do so. So, again, why is he is so crazed?
Even though I always heard the story presented and had always seen art work showing Jesus thrashing the money-changers themselves with the cords he picked up, but the text says he made a whip to drive out the animals. He wasn’t attacking people, he was shooing away the livestock.
And why? Well, Jesus may be appalled by the notion of sacrifice at all. After all, he would have known the words Isaiah imagined God saying, “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me? [says our God]. I have had enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats… who has asked this of you?” (Isaiah 1.11-12). Maybe Jesus, like Isaiah, wants people to stop thinking of God as a blood-thirsty tyrant who can think of no better way to be in relationship with humanity than to require violent bloodshed.
If you want a barbeque have a barbeque, but don’t slaughter anything for God. Killing to eat is one thing; killing to appease an angry deity is unworthy of the god of love that Isaiah and Jesus knew and preached about. And anyway, if God is with us, if God is omnipresent, then there is no need to get God’s attention with a sacrifice. God takes no pleasure in bloodshed (Isaiah 1) and requires nothing special to be in relationship with us because It’s in God that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17). There is no place we can go from God’s presence (Psalm 139). There’s not a spot where God is not. Maybe Jesus is trying to wake us from the nightmare of violence, fear, guilt, shame, and unworthiness. Maybe Jesus is trying to remind us of that primordial, natural, divine state where we are by God, of God, and filled with the breath or spirit of God. That was the human’s experience before the deep sleep from which humanity has never fully awakened. Jesus isn’t mad that people who are providing a service are getting paid for it; he’s mad that people are accusing God of being a blood thirsty monster and calling that worship.
Now, there is one more important point I think. John is writing about 20 years after the temple was destroyed. There is no temple when John is writing this. So why bother telling the story of the temple to people who no longer have one? But John has Jesus say that the temple will be raised up, but the temple is a metaphor for the body. One, that shows that scripture is often meant to be taken metaphorically rather than literally, and two, it reinforces for us that we are God’s temple, our bodies, our world are the temple of God. We’ve been taught to see God in Jesus; but we forget sometimes that Jesus saw God everywhere. Jesus, in whom we see God, would also see God in us. Wherever we are, God is; there’s not a spot where God is not.
Do you feel beyond the reach of God’s love?
Do you feel as if God has abandoned you or has harshly judged or even condemned you?
It isn’t even possible. The breath of God, that is, the spirit of life is in you. You cannot be separated from God. But you can wake up from the nightmare that you ever were. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
I am in God.
God is in me.
I can never be separated from God.
This is the good news.
And so I rejoice!
The Jesus Way Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (Sunshine Cathedral, Lent 2, 2012) You’ve watched me for over a year now struggle with weight. For the years before that, you watched me not struggle so much as surrender helplessly to it. I was born with spinal birth defects and have had back pain off and on […]
The Jesus Way
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (Sunshine Cathedral, Lent 2, 2012)
You’ve watched me for over a year now struggle with weight. For the years before that, you watched me not struggle so much as surrender helplessly to it.
I was born with spinal birth defects and have had back pain off and on for most of my life.
Then, for 21 years now, my body has provided a comfortable home for the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV). I have been so fortunate to have never had an opportunistic infection, but have struggled from time to time with pretty major fatigue.
And, as happens if you’re lucky, I’ve reached middle age. Along the way, I allowed myself to get about 30 lbs overweight, which didn’t help my back, or my energy levels, or my overall health. In fact, blood pressure and cholesterol started becoming problematic as well.
I decided that (1) I wanted to feel better. (2) I wanted to look better. And (3) I wanted to be a better model of healthy living and self-care for the congregation I try to faithfully serve.
So, for the umpteenth time, I hired a personal trainer. But this time, it wasn’t for a few weeks or months. This time, somehow, I made a commitment that commitment would not let me go.
The progress has been slow, sometimes disappointing, and there have even been a few minor injuries along the way.
But now that my cholesterol is at healthy levels, my blood pressure is usually under control, I’ve lost 2 inches in my neck, 3 and half inches in my midsection, and 27 pounds total I’m glad that I didn’t give up. I now weigh less than I did in seminary and am within 3 pounds of my goal.
I’m glad I followed the wisdom of those who encouraged me to believe I could do it. I’m grateful for those supportive voices that reminded me that I deserved progress, no matter how quickly or slowly it came.
Shame, insults, or guilt would have never kept me motivated.
Guilt and shame never bring healing.
Guilt and shame never bring healing.
Guilt and shame NEVER bring healing.
It was encouragement, generosity, kindness, support, positive reinforcement, not fear or blame that changed my health and the way I feel in and about my body. I’m not done. I’m too encouraged to give up now. That’s the point of encouragement, isn’t it?
Not only have I experienced the grace, the healing power of love, encouragement, and hope, I have seen that gracious power touch other lives in dramatic, even miraculous ways.
Back in the 90s, when we didn’t have any effective treatments for HIV, I performed over 100 funerals in three years, all before I was 30 years old and never for anyone over the age of 50. I wasn’t yet at the Sunshine Cathedral, I served another Cathedral in those days, a very large church in a large city, and there are so many memories from that crazy time that will always be with me.
There was the time I did a funeral for pastor’s son. The pastor had pre-deceased the son, and the pastor’s widow, the young man’s mother, was the son’s only living relative. She called me to do the funeral because her pastor would not do it. Her son was gay and had died of AIDS.
She was so grateful that I would do the funeral and I said, “You are always welcome in our church. Our ministry to you doesn’t have to end today.”
And with tears in her eyes she said, “Yes it does. I would love to be part of such an accepting church, but I was a housewife and I am dependent on my husband’s pension, and if I ever leave our church, I lose the pension.”
Such ecclesiastical tyranny has never furthered the cause of Christ.
There was the time a career Marine Sergeant was waiting in the waiting room of the ICU unit where his son was comatose. What a surprise it was when I walked into that waiting room and that tough, rugged career Marine collapsed into my arms and wept bitterly.
Shortly after we started our ministry in Jamaica, Robert and I were visiting our members and friends there, and I was asked to make a pastoral visit. It’s what I do.
So, they took me to an AIDS hospice. It was clean enough, but I didn’t see a single staff person, medical or otherwise. I went into the room of a young man wearing a diaper, weighing less than 100 pounds, lying weak and almost immovable on his twin bed in his un-air conditioned room. On his night stand were a dozen or more medicines, all over the counter. No medical staff around to administer anything more potent.
The young man was too weak to talk, but indicated that he wanted prayer. I knelt by his bed and took his hand and I prayed. And when I was done, he wouldn’t let go of my hand.
He couldn’t stand, or sit up, or feed himself, or even really talk, but somehow he summoned the strength to hold onto my hand as if he hoped I might be able to lift him up to a new level of life. But I couldn’t.
So I just sat silently, for what seemed like hours, it must have only been a couple of minutes, just holding that dear man’s hand.
Of course when I got back to Florida I added him to our prayer list and we prayed for him every week for months, until I heard from his friends that he had finally died. I met him once, I spent 20 minutes or less in his presence, and yet I grieved as if I had lost a special friend.
No priest or pastor or evangelist or deacon would visit him. No family. Just a few friends.
Because of the ministry you make possible that young man had a moment of judgment free, compassion. You made it possible for that lonely, suffering, isolated, young man to have a moment of dignity and maybe even peace. I hope the memory of that moment sustained him in the months to come, even as it has stayed with me all these years since.
He had heard that God had abandoned him because he was gay.
Gay like a significant percentage of every population in every culture since time immemorial has been.
Gay, like a percentage of each of multiple hundreds of species on the planet is.
Gay, like the process of life created him to be.
But all that religious condemnation only added to his suffering. It didn’t make him well, it didn’t make him more spiritual, it didn’t make him wiser or stronger or more loving, it just made him feel unsafe in his world and frightened of the next one as well.
Yes, guilt and shame and finger pointing and wrist slapping and name calling only made a life that was cut too short suffer more than it had to. And a moment of affirmation and kindness brought him something that meant so much to him that he literally did not want to let it go. In that sacred moment, this church that said we’ll stand with our friends in Jamaica was following Jesus and unleashing miracles.
Yes, my dear friends, we are a different kind of church, and that’s intentionally.
We aren’t like the churches of our past, thank God; because if the Church of Jesus Christ is to be meaningful and relevant and liberating and healing in the 21st century it must be radically different from the old guilt and shame, us and them, sin and punishment, fall and failure teachings that have never caused us to feel better or to do better or to be better.
From Salt Lake City to Rome we have built powerful institutions, we have created an empire and called it a church, but for the church to be the healing movement that it was started as, it must stop protecting systems of power and privilege and start creating peaceful communities and just societies. Jesus never meant to start a church; he meant to usher in the kin-dom of God. And the world is still waiting; let’s not make it wait anymore!
Do you see why we are so thrilled that over 1000 people each week watch our streaming sermons online? People need hope and encouragement!
Do you see why we are so honored and overjoyed that between 600 and 2000 people have an experience of ministry right here every single weekend? People need joy and empowerment!
Do you see why it matters that we place inspirational literature into the hands of over 500 people every month?
Do you see why we feed families, collect shoes, teach classes, visit people in hospitals, take worship opportunities to people in prison and assisted living facilities and even to the virtual-reality world called Second Life?
Do you see why we are willing to do memorials in bars, to speak at World AIDS Day Vigils, and turn this space into a performing arts venue that attracts people who would never come otherwise? And I don’t mean just harps and handbells, but a much more diverse offering of the arts to attract and minister to more and more kinds of people! Not just to those who consider themselves to be the best of these but also those whom the world regards as the least of these!
And yes, some of our events are out of the mainstream, hallelujah!, but those unusual events are actually ministry opportunities that are touching and healing and yes even saving lives. I’m not a tour guide for the afterlife, but together we can be good stewards of this life and we can enrich the lives of countless people here and now.
Let other churches argue about how much water it takes for baptism to work, or how often Communion should be served, or how the room should be decorated, or who gets to pick the music, or whether or not the choir should wear robes …let them waste time with that sort of pettiness and short-sighted self-indulgence.
We are too busy trying to follow Jesus. We don’t worship his death, or even the book that tells us about his life, we just try to follow him in the ways of touching those the world said were untouchable, loving those the world said were unlovable, lifting up those the world had knocked down, and sharing with the most wounded among us that the Love we call God is unconditional and all-inclusive.
And if I’m wrong then let me be wrong for giving God too much credit rather than for making a good God look like a monster.
That’s what Mark means when he tells us today that our purpose is to follow Jesus’ example even when to do so is risky.
Yes we sometimes pay a price, but look at the rewards, not just for us but also for the world. That is our calling, and as we continue to answer it, we will continue to bless and heal the world around us. And THIS is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
I am blessed to be a blessing.
I am healed as I offer healing.
I am divine love in action.
I am a follower of Jesus’ example.
And so it is.
“A faith of convenience is a hollow faith.”Fr. Mulcahy