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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tell the Truth About the Iron Teeth

This sermon was first preached in Boyd Chapel on Shaw University Divinity School's campus on Saturday, November 12, 2016.  A hermeneutical strategy I'm using here is to take a new look at the heroic figure of Daniel and the confounding images of his visions with a demystifying and humanizing lens.  What if Daniel is a young adult person not so different from us, with real world anxieties and problems as a refugee, an enslaved person from a minority ethnic group? What if Daniel is a person who has complicated vivid dreams (like my sister Jerene and my daughter Naomi), and who in addition to that receives revelation from God through some of them?  My strategy is for the listener, or you the reader, to be able to find yourself close to or even identified with the character Daniel.  Maybe it worked--you be the judge.

Daniel 7:1-20
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream:
I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it.
Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it.
After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter:
"As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever--forever and ever."
Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet; and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and concerning the other horn that came up, and to make room for which three of them fell out—the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke arrogantly, and that seemed greater than the others.

Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
  the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
  for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
   and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
  and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
  or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
  or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
  and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
  they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
  they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
  and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
  or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD—
  and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
  while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
  the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent--its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
  says the LORD.

“Tell the Truth About the Iron Teeth”

            I have rarely taught or preached about Daniel.  I grew up in an age and location that overused the book of Daniel.  At every turn, we heard traveling end-times preachers, quoting text after text from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, filling our minds with horrible images to scare the hell out of us.  Literally.
            Their specialty was to link the images to very specific current events.  One symbol was Russia.  Another symbol was the Chinese Red Army.  Another symbol was the European Common Market.  Some images were nuclear weapons.  They loved to try to count up the numerologies and prove that whatever year we were living in was being predicted in the Bible. They loved grossing us out and scaring us with the idea of blood flowing so deep it was up to the horses’ bellies.
            I eventually theologized my way out of that terroristic preaching.  It was kind of like the boy crying wolf.  How many preachers are going to tell me exactly how history must happen before I start doubting whether they have even a thimbleful of knowledge of God?  How is it that in the story of God’s calling of Israel, it seems like America is turning out to be God’s heroic champion?  Too much sensationalism led eventually, to borrow an image from Daniel, to the handwriting on the wall—they didn’t know what they were talking about.
            So I have avoided Daniel mostly.  I certainly know the stories and remember many of the images.  Yet, it has seemed to me to be a minor book among many giants, and I still hold that to be mostly true.  Even with that judgment, I was drawn to this text as it came up in the lectionary this month.  No small contributor to that interest came because my pastor, Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr., took us into this text last Sunday.  I freely admit that some of what I will say today is shaped by his exposition of the text, as I give it my own slant and perspective.  But I also want to bring to your attention this Sunday’s text from Isaiah 65:17-25.  They are two parts of a single story about this season at the end of the Christian year. 
In these final Sundays, the texts point us to the Reign of Christ, our one true ruler and savior.  That theme is highly relevant in an age of many unworthy rulers and false saviors.  At the midpoint of reading these two texts is a young man shaking with fear.  He has seen in a vision the unfolding of horrific events, monsters destroying whole nations, and that last one seems especially arrogant and cruel, and it has teeth of iron.
I would love to work this text in my usual detail, but we have to get out of here in time for your next class.  So I am going to hold back and try to hit the highlights. 
Daniel is a seer, a dreamer of visions, and he is a devoted worshiper who does not neglect his time of prayer.  He is also a refugee, a forced immigrant, who has been enlisted into forced labor in a high level job under the emperor.  Local people resent him, and they look for ways to do him harm.  Since his youth, he has had a commitment to remember who his momma and daddy are.  He shows an unusual discipline to hold to living the way they raised him.  But we should not be surprised that this vision disturbed him.  He had already survived a horrific invasion and destruction of his homeland.  He was now living among enemies under constant surveillance. 
He didn’t dress, talk, or eat like the people around him. They probably thought his food smelled bad.  They resented his speaking another language.  They thought the way he wore his hair and clothes was an affront.  The least harmful interactions were the side eye and sneer.  Many were outwardly insulting.  People threatened him.  He knew his life was always on an edge.
When he woke up from this dream he was disturbed.  In fact, he was already shaking while he was a character in the dream.  Four great beasts symbolizing four great empires.  The winged lion of Babylon who rose up and walked on two feet like a human.  Then came the bear of Medea, whose usual teeth were not scary enough, but had to have three additional tusks in that mouth to devour many bodies of the nations.  A winged leopard of Persia had four heads, four sets of teeth to devour its prey, and it had dominion over everything.
Those were enough.  They represent the empires Daniel himself would experience.  Babylon would soon fall, and the Medes and Persians would follow one upon the other.  The young man Daniel would grow to be an old man as a captive servant of these conquering empires. 
I’m your professor, so I need to take an aside here to teach.  Some scholars find the book of Daniel to be closely linked to the era of the Maccabean revolt, and they associate the stories of Daniel and the three Hebrew children as exemplary of the discipline the holy rebels will need to overthrow their Greek overlords.  From this point of view, the stories of Daniel are being told by those who look back to his time as an inspiration and guide.  That would mean the writer already knows the history of the four empires, including the Greek empire which came after the book of Daniel comes to an end.  It’s a reasonable theory and one you should study and think about.  But overall, it does not change the impact of what we are examining in this text today.  Whether a vision of future events or a retelling of past events, the theological import is the same.
That fourth monster is almost beyond imagining.  A dragon, crashing its feet as it moves, destroying everything in its path.  It has teeth of iron and ten horns.  The horns start doing some funny stuff, and it really does seem like a dream when a horn on the dragon starts talking.  If I had the time, I would talk with you about Antiochus Epiphanes and the abomination of desolation.  I guess you will have to go look that up in a reputable scholarly work of biblical commentary and criticism.
The parade of monsters is finally interrupted by the appearance of great thrones, and a great, Ancient being enters wearing bright white clothes and having hair all big and wooly.  The throne, well I guess it’s a throne, is made out of fire, and it’s on wheels.  A kind of river of fire flows out, and all around are thousands and ten thousands serving this great one.  Apparently, they are gathering to cast judgment, and the books of the courtroom are being prepared.  The judgment is quick and severe.  The last, most terrifying and loudmouthed monster is destroyed.  The other three monsters lose all their power and dominion.
This is one of those long dreams.  It still isn’t over.  A giant cloud bank is coming, and on it is someone.  It’s someone that looks like a human being.  A plain old human being.  No monster.  No fire chair on wheels.  No giant teeth or horns.  A human figure is riding on the clouds to stand before the Ancient One.  All the power over all things, including all that was taken from the four beasts, gets handed to this human one.  And Daniel learns that this human one will retain dominion forever.
In the dream, all these events had Daniel shook up.  He was troubled in his spirit.  He was terrified by the visions.  So he went to one of the many attendants of the Ancient One to ask what in the heavens was going on.  Especially, Daniel was worried about that fourth beast with iron teeth and ten horns and the new talking horn with eyes.
In this vision of Daniel we get a glimpse into the imagination of another era.  How did they depict great evil and violence?  Huge, powerful, malformed, superpowered beasts, monsters leaving a swath of destruction and death, even eating people, as they move across the land.  For older ones here, it may remind us of the early monster movies about King Kong or Godzilla.  If Daniel were dreaming in our day, he might imagine a giant transformer machine fighter, or a hoard of zombie killers, or vampire armies.  In either era, we find human beings overwhelmed and terrified by the extent of evil and destruction that can occur in our world.  Emperors and armies are depicted as giant monstrous beasts in Daniel’s vision.
There is good reason to display evil in graphic terms.  People’s lives are destroyed by the monsters of lynching.  Mass killings are routine across our country.  Warfare over oil wells and other natural resources bring saturation bombing of towns, improvised explosive devices, and even bombs strapped to the bodies of young people.  Bombs in city streets destroy human bodies and send body parts in all directions.  Drones emerge from nowhere and blow up weddings and hospitals with their targeted missiles.  The violence of conquest and counter-conquest is brutal and monstrous.
Daniel lived on edge in a world of competing empires.  The fall of Jerusalem was one small moment in a centuries-long battle for regional domination.  Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon would soon come under domination of a new world order with succession of destroying armies from Medea, Persia, and Greece.  Off on the distant horizon loomed the most consuming power of all—Rome.  But they aren’t part of Daniel’s vision.
Such strong language to depict evil is not confined to Daniel.  The New Testament brings much of this language into regular use through Paul’s theological depiction of the forces of evil.  We have let bad theology take the iron teeth out of the very real, material evil that devours people’s lives.  Empires and their military might are devastating powers.  The worship of violence as saving power and its ritual enactment of dehumanizing and killing the enemy fuels the fervor of warfare.  Monstrous thirst and lust for blood feeds the sacrosanct idolatrous gods of nationhood.  Paul spoke in ways that should be clear to us—evil becomes structurally embodied in thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, and authorities.  These are words for the ways that human beings organize power in their societies.  But we empty them of this meaning and try to turn them into invisible spirits secretly teasing at our heartstrings.  Thrones are the seats of rulers—rulers who can become tyrants.  Principalities are the regions controlled by princes, who may be despotic and murderous.  Authorities of all sorts exercise domination in our world.
God has made humanity to live orderly lives, and structures of authority are part of God’s good creation.  But there is no assumption in biblical theology that every political structure and every existing ruler is put in place by the hand of God.  Despotic rulers are the enemies of God’s peace and God’s people.  Violent systems of death and domination are opposing God’s purposes for humanity and creation.  Just because someone got appointed king or got elected president does not mean that God put that person there.  God leaves freedom for humanity to seek our own way, and far too often we choose to ignore God’s ways and pursue worldly power and domination rather than shalom and beloved community.  The rise of great and monstrous evil is a turning away from God and a distortion of humanity’s creation and purpose.
Daniel’s vision tells us more than about the dragon with iron teeth.  A crucial element of the vision appears also in the unexpected and vague character who appears at the end.  With so much wild monstrosity coming wave after wave, there appears an image of ultimate power in the Ancient One.  Then, one “like a son of man,” really one who looked like anybody or nobody, a human person, showed up.  Somehow, no doubt equally puzzling to Daniel, all the power and authority of all of these deadly empires, all their territory and peoples, all the language groups and ethnicities, came to be under this nondescript, plain human being.  No one is excluded.  No group is tossed out because of the tint of their skin or the curl of their hair.  No language is deemed unofficial, no artificial boundary is honored, no group is classified as an alien or refugee.  One ruler embraces and welcomes all.  And the new dominion of this one would not be quickly replaced by the next monster.  According to the vision, it would be forever.  Nothing could destroy or defeat this human being’s rule granted by the Ancient One.
Daniel’s vision of a meek and lowly ruler, one with not remarkable features or fancy superpowers, reveals an insight into the work of God that is rooted in the long history of God’s presence in the world and calling of Israel.  God’s election is often surprising in using the less admired person, the smaller or weaker or younger one, even the outsider.  God turns the tables on human ambitions for power and honor.  From Jacob to Joseph to Rahab to Ruth to David, no one would have scripted God’s plan in the way God did it.  Choosing an enslaved people to be the sign of God in the world is not what we would have anticipated. 
Did Daniel have access to the scroll of Isaiah?  Scholars claim that the Book of Isaiah had become one of the most used sacred writings among the Jews in the era of the second temple.  If some of the later portions of Isaiah were still being composed in exile, then the ideas and themes of the book may have been familiar.  The themes of the servant songs of Isaiah show some kinship to this vision of Daniel.  Isaiah 53 says of the servant of God, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”  A human person who does not stand out in any particular way.
So in all his experience of tenuous existence and anxiety under imperial power, Daniel probably also had a sense of divine activity to bring an end to the evil machinations of human domination systems.  The Babylonian empire was already showing signs of its demise.  Other empires in the distance were threatening to rise in conquest.  The vision drives home the theological understanding that humanity’s self-made gods are short-lived.  Their days are numbered.  Their compromises with injustice, their inherent viciousness, their deals made with the devil will ultimately bring them down under their own weight of sin.  As the North African theologian Augustine describes in his great volume, The City of God, empires undergo constant revolutions and coups d’etat as one band of robbers comes and defeats another band of robbers to take control.  Evil crops up in human society like weeds, and any show of weakness by one regime will likely be met by an upstart challenger.
The vision offers hope that God will bring an end to this churning and grinding of humanity in the clash of empires.  God will judge the evil that nations and powerful people do.  Their destructive greed will come to an end.  And the one who will replace them all shares with all of us the weakness of a human being.  Through the marvelous and frail human creation, this treasure in earthen vessels, God will bring salvation.  What a wonder!  What a joke on the mighty!  What a flip-flop of human expectation!  What a reversal of all our plans!
Human beings and human societies love power.  We love to follow the toughest football team, the fightingest hockey team, the homerun hitting and strikeout pitching baseball team, the three-point shooting and dunking basketball team.  We admire powerful ships and airplanes, and stand in fearful awe before tanks and cannons.  But it is a misguided awe and admiration.  No giant bear or winged leopard will win in the end.  The iron-toothed dragon, able to chew up even the toughest things in its path, will be put down and replaced by one in appearance as a human being.  A soft-skinned, furless, armorless, easily fatigued, eminently killable creature is the one God elevates to rule in virtue and love.  What a strange and wondrous and mighty God we serve!
Daniel does not have much else to say about what is coming.  The shock of his crazy dream ends with the vision of the human being on the clouds.  If we stretch a bit to look at this week’s text from the prophet Isaiah, we get another imagistic piece of the story of Christ’s Reign.  For Daniel, it is a dramatic reversal, an unexpected elevation of the one who seems least likely to hold dominion and authority, after the world’s all-star team of organized evil does their worst.  Daniel doesn’t try to ask what will be next, or what it will be like.  Maybe he scared himself awake.  The end of the chapter says he could not get it out of his mind.
Isaiah 65:17-25 describes another prophetic vision of a new creation.  The world of violence and domination will pass away.  Where there was destruction and sorrow, there will be joy and flourishing.  Those horrible effects of war, oppression, and poverty will end.  Children won’t die of starvation.  The elderly will see their days extended and enhanced.  The vulnerable are precious to God, and God will act on their behalf.
Moreover, the new creation will bring justice.  People will build houses and grow food in their gardens.  But the emperor or terrorist won’t steal or destroy it.  They will live in the houses they build and eat the food they produce.  They won’t have to fear to bring children into the world.  God is making things right so that we may live with hope and joy.  It will be a time of peace.  The previously monstrous and scary beasts will become peaceful.  Wolves and lambs will play and rest together—this is not a wolf from the horrifying world of Daniel’s dream.  A lion that is hungry will eat vegetation rather than kill.  It is the opposite of the world that Daniel saw coming to an end.  No need for teeth of iron in a world of justice and peace.  None will hurt or destroy.
I’m drawn here to the medieval Latin liturgy and it's recognition of how prophecies like this one in Isaiah anticipate the incarnation:

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum (Oh, great mystery and wonderful sacrament)
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio! (that animals should see the newborn Lord placed in a manger!)

Isaiah proclaims to the returning exiles that they can hope for a restoration, a better life than even before, if they will unite themselves to God’s ways.  Jesus, deeply influenced in his theology by the book of Isaiah, embraces this vision of a new creation in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Moreover, Jesus adopts as his own path Isaiah’s depiction of the servant of God, the lowly one who cares for those who suffer and joins them in their struggle.  One has to wonder whether Jesus intentionally linked these two prophetic images when he chose the name son of man or human being to describe himself in his public ministry.  Mortal one, one like us, one with appearance as a human being—that is the one that the Ancient of Days elevates to the highest glory, honor, and power.
With Daniel, we find ourselves living in this in-between place.  Around us we see organized evil of monstrous proportions.  Hate, division, and killing are the coin of the realm.  We live in the world’s most powerful nation, an imperial power with client states and manufacturing colonies all over the world.  What sort of beast would Daniel have seen if the USA were in his dream?  An eagle with the body of a grizzly bear?  A panther with wings of a vulture?  It’s pointless to speculate, but the truth we must recognize is that we live in a nation destined to pass away.  This empire will fall, as all other have, under the weight of its own violence, its genocide, its weapons of mass destruction, and its constant warfare.  Demagogues rise up to stir the base passions of a nation built on white supremacy and slavery.  Hateful men laud their own debasing behavior toward women.  Before the throne of the Ancient One, every tyrant will be judged, found wanting, and brought down.  The momentary victories of unjust powers and dominions will ultimately find their end under the justice of God. 
In the meantime, we wait under the shadow of empire.  We seek the peace of the city where we live, that in its welfare we will also find peace.  We speak truth to power and say, “No,” to the unjust demands of empire.  We live as resident aliens, not of this world, but loving those in the world where, by God’s grace, we take another breath today.  And we rest in the hope of a new creation.  Our destiny is not destruction, but houses, gardens, joyous life together in a land of justice and peace.  Come, Lord Jesus.  May we see your peace and justice break forth anew, even in our lifetimes.  And may we walk in your way of love and care and standing with and for the ones the world has cast aside, as the songwriter Rick Elias says,

For now, we live on these streets,
Forbidding and tough,
Where push always comes to shove,
And it’s said, “Love’s never enough.”
Where a prophet in rags gave hope to a fearful world.
No injustice, no heart of darkness
Will keep this voice from being heard.
He was a man of no reputation,
And by the wise, considered a fool
When he spoke about faith and forgiveness
In a time when the strongest arms ruled.
But this man of no reputation
Loves the weak with relentless affection.
And he loves all us poor in spirit, just as we are.
He was a man of no reputation.

One like a human being, like a son of man, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, homeless and with no place to lay his head, one you might pass on the street and never notice.  He is our salvation—whom then shall we fear?  If God is for us, who can stand against us?  This one truly reigns, and in Jesus Christ, and in no one else, we place our trust on this day and forevermore.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Emotions Stirring on Election Day 2016

Yesterday was very busy by my standards.  I was doing communications work for church and community organizing most of the morning.  I had a meeting that lasted an hour and one-half at noon.  Then I had to drive to Raleigh for another meeting at Shaw.  I stayed in my office after that to do some email catching up and get some preparation work done for the faculty retreat.  The next thing I knew, it was after 5:00 pm, dark outside, and the security officer was locking up the building now that all classes were over for the day.

I went on to the car and started the drive home.  The traffic fates had mercy on me, and there were only a few slowdowns with red brake lights shining, so I made good progress.  It's always tempting just to pick a restaurant and buy dinner on the way home, but nobody can afford that all the time.  On the other hand, going to a restaurant by myself gets pretty old.  I had made a plan for supper, and I knew Naomi would need to eat, too.  So I went straight home and started getting dinner on the table:  baked potatoes with Brown & Brummel's yogurt/butter spread and cheese, fresh snow peas, and corn on the cob.  I have to admit, we needed another potato to fill out the meal, so before long I was turning to the "Little Debbie food group" to reach complete satiety.

On that drive home I found myself in a roller coaster of emotions.  Listening to music or listening to news, everything was setting my thoughts off into deep reflections.  Suddenly, without any clear reason, tears welled up, and sent my investigative mind searching for "why?"  Rather than hiding, buried down deep as usual, my feelings stayed thick in my consciousness all the rest of the evening.  I did some more work on a project I'm trying to finish.  I read more up-to-the-minute analysis at the FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics websites.  I listened to the song I am supposed to sing lead on this Sunday at Mt. Level.  I read and meditated on lectionary texts from the past few weeks, especially the Prophets.  I chatted with a friend who helps hold me up.  I got a report of one of Everly's cousins' having passed away in hospice.  I listened to more music, finally getting back to one of my fall back artists, Bruce Cockburn.  And this morning, the mood remains.

Identifying why moods come and go is never as easy as I would wish.  If I could find the simple cause and effect, I guess I imagine that I could take charge of this embodied self and put me back on an even keel.  Hanging around long enough, knowing Everly for so long and her far greater familiarity with the stirrings and proddings of emotion, has taught me enough that I don't tend to react with an overwhelming effort to suppress.  My upbringing taught me to own the feelings as mine and stop looking for ways to blame them on something or someone outside of me, and I think I do a fair job of avoiding that.

A situation like this one really comes with a complex set of events and changes going on.  Naomi is in the final lap of finishing her dual masters degrees, and I feel the pressure she is under.  I'm at that point of the semester when all my unfinished work is piling up on me, with deadlines I hope I can meet.  As has often been the case, I puzzle in such times about whether what I am doing now is the best I could be doing for my calling to follow Jesus.  Naomi will be job hunting, and she may soon need to move out of the house we share to take up her calling.  W.D. is living far from all of us in Salado, and I wish there were a simple solution to his not being isolated.  It's quite a few things, and not any one of them.

The uncertainty, volatility, and hatefulness of the election season also takes a toll on me, and I can't help being afraid of what some results might lead to.  I have no delusions of American exceptionalism or divine destiny being fulfilled as the USA becomes the Kingdom of God.  I believe the opposite.  The sins of this nation, piled up, reach to the sky like a tower of Babel.  Trust in false gods of violence and wealth, oppression on every side while most of us enjoy such ease--"Woe to those who are at ease in Zion."  Almost all of the hope I can muster looks to the local possibilities of working for the common good.  At the national and state level, it too often seems like our work is defending people from the worst that leaders can do, holding off the extremes of greed, violence, and indifference.  I've cast my vote toward not stepping deeper into a cesspool of hatred for so many whom God loves, regardless of where they were born or how they pray.  One election can't transform this world into something it has no desire to be, and comparing options for least bad outcomes takes a toll on our hearts if we long for justice and beloved community.  That's my discouragement talking today.

As I write, I realize that four years ago, Everly was able to vote in the election, there in Salado, Texas.  So much has changed since then, and as months pass, the cumulative effects continue to unfold.  My beautiful David, Naomi, and Lydia keep progressing through their adult lives, passing through challenges and victories, and I wish she could touch them and tell them how proud she is and give them little trinkets of her affection.  She can't do that, and she couldn't go to her cousin's bedside, as he did for her in 2013.  His classically Southern name, Ben Tom, to distinguish him from uncles named Ben and Tom and another cousin named Ben, matched perfectly with a gentle, loving Southern way of caring for and encouraging others.  May God receive him in glory and love, and may the family know the presence of God in these days.  I am a witness--God will never leave you or forsake you!

Election days, if we can get ourselves out of the boxing ring and the horse race long enough, are days on which we think about the world that is coming: weeks, months, years ahead.  How do our choices, made in anger and rage or in lust and greed, shape the future lives of child workers in Bangladesh, fast-food workers who have to apply for welfare, and young men and women who will be sent to die for someone's profit margin and vacation home?  May we face this day with appropriate sobriety, and may our hope rest somewhere beyond the battle of Demicans and Republicrats whose record of caring for the poor and outcast, the marginalized and the worker, has been dismal at best.  May those elected catch a glimpse of the grace in which they stand, and may their endurance produce character, and may character give rise to a hope that does not disappoint.  Is it too much to ask?

Monday, November 07, 2016

Songs of Hope


With "Songs of Hope," Durham CAN has put together a powerful line-up of performers that represent much of the variety and strength of what Durham is.  We are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community.  We have strong educational institutions.  We have creative business leaders and civil servants. We have many styles and tastes.  Songs of Hope aspires to display that range of life in Durham.

The list of performing artists includes
  • Shukr7—a South Asian Folk band with a Bollywood sound
  • Timothy Holley—cellist from NCCU
  • Deja Blue—women’s a cappella singing group from Duke
  • Latina Duet of Yolanda Correa and Victoria Perez—they promise to get us active
  • Kadeisha Kilgore—liturgical dancer
  • Terry Allebaugh—harmonica player
        and, the headline act of the program
  • Lois Deloatch—internationally know jazz singer from Durham
This is a great opportunity to get out and be with other folks from Durham.  We will be celebrating the recent accomplishments of Durham CAN as we enjoy the talents of Durham's great artistic community.  "Songs of Hope" takes place on Sunday, November 13, at 5:00 pm to 6:30 pm, at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, 504 W. Chapel Hill St., downtown, across the street from the police department.

"Songs of Hope" is a fundraising benefit concert for Durham CAN.  Tickets are $30.  There is much more work to be done on affordable housing, jobs that pay living wages, better schools and opportunities for youth, promoting fair policing and better police-community relationships, and safety and opportunity for all citizens of our county and city.  This is important work, and Durham CAN steps up to take the lead again and again, bringing the power of thousands of people who care about one another and about our community.  That's who we are.  We bring together people from all across our county and city to make living in Durham better for all our residents.  Please take this great opportunity to join others for an evening of entertainment and a contribution to the ongoing work of Durham CAN.  You can order tickets online, or you can contact me for tickets as well.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

When Jesus Hung Out With Zack

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on October 30, 2016.

I was drawn to the lectionary text from the Gospel telling a familiar story that is often overlooked for its significance in the themes of economic justice.  Yet it is also rich with personal and relational insight into the love of God revealed in Jesus.  A wonderful young man at Mt. Level goes by the name Zack, and I expected to see him in worship on this day.  That gave me an extra motivation to shorten the name in the title to "Zack," as a way to honor my friend's presence and faithfulness. 

When Jesus Hung Out with Zack
Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it.
A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I want to speak on the subject today, “When Jesus Hung Out with Zack.”  Do you mind if I teach for a while today?  I suspect you are used to that.  It is the way of this pulpit.  I’m going to elaborate on the interpretive process as I start out.  Sometimes we leave that work in the background.  Today, let’s bring it to the foreground.
When we read the gospels from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we tend to receive them as a complete package.  We often blur together the differences between the four gospels, and we just assume all the parts fit together easily without paying much attention to how they fit.
More careful reading of the gospels would lead us to think about the relationship between different parts of a gospel.  There is a flow of the stories, conversations, and speeches.  One part leads to another; one section lays the groundwork for understanding another. The one we read today is a narrative about Jesus’ travels, and in this narrative we find a conversation between Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus.  There is also a third party to the conversation, who are the rest of the crowd who saw this conversation happening in public.
The gospel does not tell us all the details of Jesus’ visit to Jericho on that day.  So to be good readers of the story, we should pay attention to the details which it does provide.  For instance, it says Jesus came to Jericho.  Jericho was a major city in the Jordan River Valley, northeast of Jerusalem.  This detail links the story of Zacchaeus to the longer narrative of Luke.  It tells us that Jesus is making progress on his final trip from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Jesus has explained to his disciples that it is finally time to bring his ministry to its climax of standing up to the empire and the Judean ruling elite.  The conflict between the Jerusalem elite and Jesus has been growing ever since he began to preach and minister to large crowds.  He has had to stay away from Jerusalem in order to be able to teach and serve more people.  He has discouraged people from saying in public that he is the Messiah.  His colleague in ministry, John the Baptist, was arrested and executed, and he knew the powerful people who opposed John would love to do the same thing to him.  So for a time, he did his work at a distance from the capital.  He was training his followers, getting out his message, clarifying his mission, and building a movement.  Eventually, he determined that the preparation was complete.  Rather than stay indefinitely in the remote villages of Galilee, Jesus decided he should face his enemies and bring his message of God’s Kingdom into public confrontation with the kingdoms of this world.  On his way, he was passing through Jericho.
As this narrative was unfolding in Luke’s gospel, another encounter and conversation occurred on the outskirts of Jericho.  A blind man, who stayed alive by begging on the side of the road, had called out to Jesus, calling him Son of David, a name that showed he recognized that Jesus came as the Messiah.  At this time, Jesus did not tell the man to be quiet.  Many who were skilled in the study of scripture and could watch everything Jesus did, had refused to accept the thought that Jesus could be the Messiah.  This man, unable to see, but trusting what he was hearing, sees clearly who Jesus is, even in his blindness.  This blind man’s story repeats a recurring theme about those who can see and those who cannot see, and the irony is that the ones least expected to see actually see best.  He receives his sight and follows Jesus on down the road.
Zacchaeus also had trouble seeing, we are told.  In the midst of a crowd gathered to see Jesus, he could not get a view.  He had to climb a tree to be able to see.  Told here in a different way, we see an echo of the same theme.  The one who was least able to see may be the one who sees most clearly.
The story also tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector, in fact the head tax collector for his locale.  The taxing authority was Rome, an occupying army and imperial power.  Collecting taxes for Rome was viewed by the Judeans as treason.  Zacchaeus had gone over to the enemy.  He was enforcing the oppressive laws of the empire.  In addition, many believed that these tax collectors were dishonest.  They made their living by charging a premium on what the Romans expected them to collect.  Within this system, a tax collector might jack up the rates and overcharge the people as a way to get rich.  The story goes on to say that Zacchaeus was very rich.
In the previous chapter, Jesus had told a story about a tax collector.  Two people had gone to the synagogue to pray.  One, a Pharisee, was reputed to be righteous beyond the average person.  The other, a tax collector, was assumed to be rotten through and through.  But Jesus ended up praising the tax collector, who unlike the Pharisee, knew that he was a sinner in need of God.  That parable about the two people’s prayers again foreshadows the remarkable story of Zacchaeus.
By telling us that Zacchaeus was rich, this encounter becomes linked to one of the prevailing themes of Luke’s gospel.  The gap between the rich and the poor was of great concern for Jesus and for the gospel writer.  Chapter 16 ends with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, about greed and neglect of the poor.  Chapter 18 includes the story of a rich man who came to Jesus to brag about his righteousness and ask a question about what more he should do.  He may have expected Jesus to say, “You’ve already done it all.  You lack nothing.  Hey, everybody, look at God’s favorite.”  That’s not what happened.  The rich man was disappointed that Jesus wanted him to give away his wealth.  He went away.  Afterwards, the disciples were deeply puzzled by Jesus’ remarks that it is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.  They thought riches were a sign of God’s favor.
Still puzzling over this, not really understanding how fully Jesus was committed to Sabbath economics and Jubilee redistribution, they entered Jericho.  Jesus went against the expectations of the crowd and singled out Zacchaeus, the tax collector.  Everyone grumbled about Jesus for doing this.  They didn’t anticipate what the result of Jesus’ visit with Zacchaeus would be.  I suspect the disciples grumbled along with the rest of the folks.  You and I would have grumbled, too.  If Jesus keeps criticizing the rich, why is he going to the rich guy’s house?  And if he is going to hang out with a rich guy, why the traitor and cheat, Zacchaeus?  It took them a long time to realize how thoroughly Jesus was turning the world upside down.
Continuing with this theme of unjust economic practices after his visit with Zacchaeus, chapter 19 shows Jesus next begin to tell a chilling story, one that highlights a contrast to what happened with Zacchaeus in Jericho.  It is a thinly veiled account of how Herod’s son, Archelaeus, became king over Judea.  He wanted to be appointed directly by Caesar, but before that could happen, he had to deal with a rebellion among the Jews.  The Herodian family was known for violence and oppressive rule, and he continued that tradition.  During Passover, his police force retaliated against their protests by killing 3000 of the people gathered for the festival.  Having done that, he went on to Rome and got his appointment as king.  Not surprisingly, he rewarded his friends and punished his enemies when he got back to Jerusalem.  Jesus points out in this parable that the opposite of the Jubilee happens in the world of empire and domination.  Those with much get even more.  Those with little lose what they have.  Rulers get rich by taking what is not theirs.  In the midst of this collection of stories, Jesus’ interactions with Zacchaeus represent a contrast.  Zacchaeus is unlike the rich man who came to Jesus, and because of turning to the way of Jesus, he is unlike the ruler who rewards his wealthy supporters.  When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he will demonstrate how a king can be an humble servant and a champion of justice.
I’ll finish up this survey of the details from Zacchaeus’s story with a couple more items.  Then we can get to the core of the message.  It says Zacchaeus could not see because of the crowd.  We recall from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee that he was often pressed by large crowds.  When he was tired, he sometimes tried to get away, only to find them waiting for him wherever he showed up.  Jesus’ reputation drew large crowds.  Moreover, as he made this trip to Jerusalem, he seemed to be gathering people along the way.  Remember that the blind man outside Jericho got up and started following him.  Soon in Jerusalem, the crowds will fill the streets with shouts of praise.  With so many people, Zacchaeus faced a problem.  He would have to figure out a way to get a look at Jesus.
The reason it was a problem is that Zacchaeus was short.  In a crowd of average and tall people, he could only see people’s heads and shoulders.  He could not see past them to the center of everyone’s attention.  An unpopular man, he would not be able to get friends to give him a boost.  So he figured out where a tall tree was, a very climbable, very large sycamore tree, and he made a plan to get a view of this famous man coming to town.  No doubt, he had similar questions and thoughts about who Jesus might be as did the rest of the crowd.  He at least wanted to get a look at him.
So we have picked over this story for its significant details.  We have found its links to the longer narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  We have identified major themes of the gospel of Luke that play a role in this story.  We have analyzed elements of Zacchaeus’s identity which help us to gain insight into the passage.  Perhaps you already find yourself drawn by the Holy Spirit to see how God can speak to you through these verses from Luke 19.
Still, I would like to hone in on a few relevant aspects of this story for our time and place.  What can the story of Zacchaeus say to us at Mt Level, in Durham, NC, at the end of October in 2016?  Let me offer what I see in this text.
First, this short, disreputable, crooked, despised turncoat Zacchaeus was in almost every way imaginable an outcast in his town.  If he grew up in Jericho, which is likely, then people there knew his family.  There were people he played with as a kid.  There were people with whom he had studied the Torah as a boy.  He and others had been to each others’ Bar Mitzvahs.  Maybe he never quite fit in.  Or maybe there was some turning point when he no longer felt it was worth trying to be part of the “in group.”
I recently heard an interview on the radio about the struggles young people face during their middle school years.  One person talked about the experience of feeling like she was always being left out of the best things that were happening in her school.  Often middle schoolers feel like there is a group of kids who are the cool ones, and then a few other kids who get to hang out with that group.  But many kids have this nagging, persistent feeling of being left out.  They always wish they could be best friends with the cool kids, but they never get in on what those cool kids are doing.  I certainly remember that feeling.  Maybe you do, too.
As the radio program continued, the speaker described her research from talking with other adults about their memories of middle school.  She had concluded that almost all middle school kids had a similar experience of feeling they were on the outside, of feeling left out of the group.  Even the cool kids seemed to have that same set of feelings.
Often, when people feel left out, they try to identify just what it is that sets them apart as strange, different, or unwelcome.  Some might think they don’t have the right clothes.  They might believe they live in the wrong neighborhood.  They might feel too fat or too thin, too short or too tall.
I don’t think we stretch our imaginations too far in relation to this text if we surmise that part of what may have led Zacchaeus to draw back from his neighbors was his experience of being shorter than most people.  I admit to having been pretty mean to some of my short friends back in my teen years, teasing them as a way to make myself feel more important.  It’s not uncommon.  There are even standard prejudices about short people:  some people say they are mean and resentful, or that they are inclined to try to control other people.  Some of us remember the Randy Newman song that satirized the prejudice against short people.
At some point, the boy or the man Zacchaeus reached the point of not trying.  He gave up on changing the way things were for him.  He decided to make his own way as an outsider.  He decided to get his revenge by joining up with a different power crowd.  Like so many young people trying to make their way toward adulthood and maturity, he felt shut out and alone.  All he wanted was to fit in, to be normal, to get to join in when people were having a good time.  Deep inside, he still wanted that, but he gave up on ever getting there.  Really, deep within, he wanted more than to fit in.  He wanted justice.  He wanted things to be set right.  He wanted to be in a world where people treated one another well, the way God made us to be.  But I suspect Zacchaeus had become cynical about all that.  If the others were going to shut him out of the community and friendship he longed for, he would just focus on helping himself.
Just helping yourself, just getting yours, has its rewards.  In Zacchaeus’s case, he figured out how to get rich.  It probably meant he had nicer clothes than most people.  He probably had a bigger house than most people.  He might even have been able to throw some good parties, where all the powerful people would hang out.  But based on this story, he was not satisfied.  Some kind of longing was still there, not too far below the surface.  He had heard about Jesus and wondered if he was the kind of leader who could help change the way this rotten world has turned out.
Zacchaeus showed no sign that he expected Jesus to actually talk with him or visit him or even look at him.   Rather, he seems just to want to get a glimpse of Jesus, to try to measure up what kind of man he was.  Somewhere inside was a glimmer of hope that Jesus’ passing by could be a sign that things would change.  But mainly, he figured that from his tree branch perch, he would at least be a distant part of something big that was happening.
The surprising turn in this story is that Jesus stopped and picked out Zacchaeus for a conversation.  Maybe he asked someone, “Who is that guy up in the tree over there?”  Maybe he figured out what he needed to know by looking Zacchaeus over—nice clothes, by himself, too old to be climbing trees, seems small.  We don’t have that information.  We just know Jesus shocked everyone.
It’s a great big crowd.  There are people there who may have made plans for Jesus’ visit.  Some of Jesus’ enemies were counting on a chance to try to make him look bad.  Some of Jesus’ admirers were hoping to have a chance to hang out and talk.  Some sick people may have come for healing.  It was a big crowd, but Jesus ended up under a tree talking with Zacchaeus.
This is the part of the story we know.  It is the part I was taught to sing as a four- or five-year-old.  Sing along if you know it. 
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he. 
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see. 
And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree. 
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down. 
For I’m going to your house today. 
For I’m going to your house today.” 
So what happened when Jesus was at Zacchaeus’s house?  Hospitality would dictate that Zacchaeus provided comfort and refreshment.  Maybe they shared a meal.  Certainly they talked to one another.  If we pay attention to what we have learned about the gospel of Luke and the placement of this story within it, we can probably get a good idea of what they may have talked about.
Jesus was deeply committed to a redistribution of the goods of this world so that there is no need among the people in the community.  This is what the economic system of the Torah had taught.  Moreover, it also taught that when things get out of proportion, as they will, there has to be a plan to set things right.  People who lost their land should get their land back.  People who go in debt and become indentured workers should have their debts cancelled and be set free to provide for their families again.  People who have become wealthy by victimizing the weak and the poor need to return what rightfully belongs to others.  People who have plenty need to share what they have with those in need.  From Mary’s song in Luke 2 after meeting Gabriel, to Jesus sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4, to the Lord’s prayer in chapter 11, and all the way down to chapter 19 and beyond, these economic ideas have been at the center of Jesus’ calling, teaching, and ministry.
We don’t know if Zacchaeus was really ready to hear that kind of talk.  Many people grew angry with Jesus over the months and years of his ministry when he started talking about a revolutionary economic change on the order of the Sabbath year and Jubilee justice.  Zacchaeus may also have resisted.  Today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah chapter 1 includes a well known passage in which God is calling Israel to a sit-down conversation.  The King James says, “Come, let us reason together.”  I am drawn to the New Revised Standard translation which says, “Come, let us argue it out.”  Zacchaeus and Jesus may have had some back and forth.  They  may have taken some verbal jabs at one another.  They may have tried to make their case with the best possible arguments. 
Whatever they said and did, however, what is clear is that it ended up with Zacchaeus having an encounter with the Living God.  He came to see that the way of God’s justice is the only path to arriving in that world that he longed for deep in his heart.  If he wanted things to be set right between himself and the people of Jericho, he would have to be ready to take the first step and model the way of righteousness.  The path to a just world is for each of us to live just lives.  Zacchaeus learned this in his encounter with Jesus.  He realized that there could be a better world, and he would need to be the one ready to make it happen.  By aligning himself with the way of Jesus, he would be part of the movement that the Spirit of God was spreading throughout the land.  Although some people in Jericho were sure there must not be any good in Zacchaeus, Jesus saw in him a marvelous creation of God, one whom God declares good from the foundation of the world, and one who by following and uniting himself to Jesus would become a leader of the called out people of God.  The Holy Spirit was able to reach into this corrupted, lonely, bitter, and damaged man to stir up the hope within him and restore the image of God in him.
We live in a world not so different from Zacchaeus’s world.  The gap between rich and poor is wide and growing.  People shut one another out and drive people who are different into dens of loneliness and despair.  Groups try to prevent other groups from voting.  Leaders lie and cheat to get riches and power.  We feel separated from one another and powerless to change things.  Our city is plagued by overpriced housing, low wages, underfunded and unequal schools, and challenges to our systems of policing and justice.  We sometimes feel it’s not even worth thinking about these problems.  We feel weak and powerless.  We feel like giving up and just looking out for ourselves.
But I stopped by today to retell an old, old story of a Savior who walked into Jericho.  It was a divided town.  The relationships were broken and polarized.  People were filled with resentment, hard feelings, and harsh words.  Some had great wealth without justice.  Many were longing for some kind of salvation.  And Jesus came to town and behaved in the most unexpected way.  He found the man most alone, most corrupted, most outcast, least loved—Jesus found the one who felt inside like you and I have felt sometimes.  Nobody wanted Jesus to talk to Zacchaeus, but Jesus does not see the way the world sees.  Jesus does not do the way the world does.  Jesus found this man way up in a tree.  It was a ludicrous situation.  Jesus called him down to stand on his feet.  He went with this man to his house while the town grumbled and griped.  He stayed there until the power of God had won the argument and changed the man.  And he brought him out changed as the leader of a transformation of his city toward justice.
Don’t you give up on God.  God has not given up on you.  Whatever you think can’t be changed in your life, God can make a way.  Whatever you believe can’t change in Durham, in North Carolina, in Washington, DC, remember that God can make a way.  God will come and find you up in a tree or down in a hole or out in a desert.  God has come into the world in Jesus Christ to seek and to save the lost.  You can’t get so lost that Jesus can’t find you.  He came to seek and to save.  Hang out with Jesus and see what happens to you.  Hang out with Jesus and see what kind of change is going to come.  Hang out with Jesus and find out where faith, hope, and love come from.  Zacchaeus tried it, and look who he turned out to be.  Zack tried it, and now his name is in the Bible because he opened his hand and heart to the poor.  You try it.  Have Jesus come to your house.  You won’t regret it.  Amen.
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