Archive for July, 2019

Faith in Community

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

Click here to hear the full service

Click here to hear the sermon only

 John 13:12–17, 33–35

Faith in Community

 

The title phrase of our Summer sermon series, “Faith in Community”, can be interpreted in at least two ways.  One interpretation is “Faith in Community” – belief and trust in the idea of community itself.  That is, broadly, the idea of the unity of a body of people that share something in common: interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.  Another interpretation of the title is “Faith in Community” – the ways in which faith is lived out in community both by the individuals in a community and by the community altogether.  As I am preaching this Sunday and next, I thought we might explore both these interpretations.  Today we’ll consider faith in the idea of community itself,  and next Sunday we’ll consider some of the ways faith is lived out by the individuals in community and by the community altogether.

So, today, Faith in the idea of community itself, belief and trust in the idea of the unity of a body or group of people that share something in common:  interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.

But first, I’d like to tell you a little about what I’ve done so far on my Summer vacation.  Many of you know that I have the privilege to facilitate the Abolitionist Chapel Today group, or A.C.T., here at Marsh.  We are a study/program/advocacy group in the larger resistance to human trafficking and modern-day slavery.  The work is often a challenge.  Human trafficking and modern-day slavery together comprise the second-largest and most lucrative criminal activity on the planet.  Mostly women and children, millions are victimized world-wide and over 100,000 are victimized in the United States every year, for the purposes of forced labor, sexual exploitation, debt bondage, child soldiering, and sale of body parts.  The experiences we read about are often horrific, in the great scheme of things our group itself is small, and some days are discouraging.  Our homework reminder to each other is “don’t read or watch this at night, don’t read or watch this alone, don’t read or watch this before you go to sleep, and do something really fun after you’ve read or watched this.”

On the other hand, Abolitionist Chapel Today is not alone.  The word is getting out, and new people and groups join in the resistance all the time – some of them right here within the Boston University community, and some are those who we have come to know in Massachusetts and the wider national and global resistance.  Law enforcement, businesses, politicians, and health providers are increasingly aware of the signs and issues of trafficking and modern-day slavery and are involved as well.  We in A.C.T. enjoy each other’s company and appreciate each other’s gifts and interests, and we make sure to share “good news” stories about what people are doing to resist this evil.

I came upon one good news story on my Summer vacation.  We went down to visit my brother and his family near Nashville TN.  While we were there, my sister-in-law took me out to lunch at the Thistle Farms Café and to check out their adjoining shop.  The restaurant was spotless and attractive, the service was great, the food was delicious, and the almond cake – well, the almond cake invited a private experience of gustatory bliss.  The shop offered helpful and knowledgeable service and a number of “kind-to-the earth as well as to the body” bath and body products, all made by hand through Thistle Farms from essential oils with various wonderful fragrances.  The Shop also offers bags, jewelry, and household items made by Thistle Farms and by their global partners.  There are also books about Thistle Farms and its accompanying residential program Magdalene House – these are written by their founder, an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens.  What was most interesting to me about the café and shop, and the reason my sister-in-law took me there, is that Magdalene House is a two-year residential community.  It  provides food, housing, medical and dental care, therapy, education, and job training – at no cost to them – for women who have survived trafficking, sexual exploitation, addiction, and/or life on the streets.  Thistle Farms Café and Shop are staffed in their operations by residents and graduates of the Magdalene community, with all sales proceeds going back to the Magdalene community and the Café and Shop.  Graduates of Magdalene and Thistle Farms also receive ongoing support through networking, emergency assistance, and continuing education and job skills development.  In the Thistle Farms National Network, over 50 organizations have programs based on Thistle’s model of recovery, with 25 of them having residential programs.  There is a Magdalene prison program in Tennessee so that women can begin their healing journey in prison and then upon release can transition into the residential program.  With its more than 30 global partners in 20 countries on 5 continents working to alleviate extreme poverty, the Shop practices a “shared trade” model, in which both the partner and the Shop share the profits they make together.  Last year alone, the combined enterprises provided thousands of hours of safe housing, employment, and employment support for survivors, over a million dollars in income for survivors, and hundreds of hours of counseling, therapy, and medical care for survivors. and 1,200 women artisans were supported by the global partnerships.

The thistle is an apt symbol for Magdalene and Thistle Farms.  It is considered

by most to be a weed, but its taproot can grow through concrete and survive drought. Its leaves and stem are prickly in defense, but the flower is soft and full of beautiful color – rather like the survivors themselves as they move through the program.   Out of Becca Steven’s own story of childhood loss, betrayal, sexual abuse, and economic challenges, and out of the stories of women who have survived excruciating pain, poverty, and violence, out of these shared interests and experiences has come a community, a people truly united by new shared experience and interests in healing and hope.  And all of it, as Becca Stevens writes, is 20 years of “witness to the truth that love is the most powerful force for social change in the world.”

That’s a very interesting statement.  Faith in love as a force for social change does not seem very evident in these days of children separated from their parents and held in cages at our southern border, where they either suffer hunger, filth, and disease if not death, or are lost entirely so that no one has any idea where they are.  Faith in community as unity through shared interests doesn’t seem to have much traction either, except as very narrowly defined by certain groups more concerned for their own interests against those of anyone else, even to the death of the planet, even to the trafficking and enslavement of those they consider as commodities for their personal gratification.  Part of it may be that our ideas of love and community have become fuzzy, so that we don’t know what love or community actually looks like.  “Love” is the most over-used and fuzzy word in the language:  I love my God, I love my dog (and/or cat), I love Cherry Garcia ice cream, I love your hat, I love that window treatment.  “Community” also most often seems to mean a collection of people having some common interests, but not necessarily interests that create unity.  For instance, my own denomination of United Methodism has many common interests, including allegiance to Jesus and an assumption of leadership and guidance by the Holy Spirit.  But these are apparently not enough to overcome the demands for a litmus test around the full inclusion of LBGTQIA persons, or not enough in the face of these demands to continue to maintain the unity around the other common interests and the ongoing life of the community.

Jesus himself, and the early church, however, had clear ideas of community and love, three of which are remembered in our scriptures this morning.  John’s Gospel recalls Jesus as leaving his disciples with a new commandment:  they are to love one another as he has loved them, and it is by this love that everyone will know that they are Jesus’ disciples.  So how did Jesus love his disciples?  He washed their feet, as an example to them.  He brought them together as a community, a group of people united by their interests in the good news of God’s kingdom, and freedom from the slavery of sin and separation from God, self, and neighbor.  He changed his mind in front of them as he grew into his work.  The community included the original twelve men and then other men; the women who funded the ministry, opened their homes and their pantries, and first told the news of the resurrection; and let’s not forget all those children, who brought loaves and fish and were set in the middle of the adults as examples of God’s kingdom.  And when the community had the examples and the training and any healing they needed, Jesus sent them out tp preach and teach and heal and be examples themselves.

The Gospel of Matthew recalls Jesus’ story of what we now call the Last Judgement.  It is the righteous, those who have acted in accordance with divine or moral law, who will inherit the blessing and the promises of God.  They will do so because they have fed the the Lord when he was hungry, given drink to him when he was thirsty, welcomed him as a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him in prison.  And when the righteous have no idea when in fact they did all this, the Lord tells them that when they did all these things for the least of these, who are the Lord’s – not just community but family – they have done it to the Lord himself.

The letter of James in the early church states that faith without works is dead.  In other words, the way one is shown to be a faithful disciple in the Christian community is by the actions one takes, not by what one says or believes.  Faith is the wellspring of action, and the example James gives of an appropriate action is to care for the bodily needs of those who are suffering.  The community of faith does not just have a spiritual mission; it has a mission of holistic engagement with the needs of the world as well.

Magdalene and Thistle Farms have this kind of faith in community:  they believe that the unity of people who share interests and experiences can change the world.  Out of the worst sorts of abuse and exploitation, and out of being overlooked or judged harshly by others, they choose love as the power they will develop in themselves and for others to promote their own holistic hope and healing and to offer that hope and healing to others.  Their community grew organically out of the people who comprised it, from Steven’s own interest in oils and balms as aids to her own ministry and healing, to the use of oils and balms by the Magdalen residents to bring freshness and soothing to their own lives, to the realization that these comforts could be offered to others for their enjoyment and self-care as well as to provide for the support and expansion of the Magdalene program and the Café and Shop, to the invitations to others to join them globally in the promotion of health and healing in other places of challenge. It has not always been easy.  The first batches of a combination oil they attempted in the kitchen ended as sludge on the bottom of the pot.  Fears and doubts raise their heads.  Survivors do not complete or relapse from the program; they go back to their old lives, they die.  Human trafficking and modern-day slavery are now being called a public healh crisis or a social pandemic.  And life in community is always real in both its gifts and its challenges  But Becca Stevens and the Magdalen and Thistle communities ground their faith in community as did Jesus and the early church.  They ground their faith in love, in what Stevens calls the four axioms of love.  First, love is eternal, with no beginning or end.  Second, love is the story of God unfolding in our lives.  Third, love is not concerned so much with dogma as it is a dogged determination to bloom and speak.  Fourth, love is sufficient.

The work of resistance to human trafficking and modern-day slavery is not for everyone, and even if it is generally for some, it is not the same specific work for everyone.  For instance, Abolitionist Chapel Today does not run a residential program, a café, or a shop.  We are a study, programming, and advocacy group.  But we and Magdalene and Thistle Farms both do witness to the truth, that faith in community empowered by love can change the world in their places and time.  Faith in community powered by love can change the world in other places and times as well.

We ourselves may not do the work that Magdalene and Thistle Farms are doing.  But what communities do we love enough to have faith in?  These communities may not necessarily be churches, although they may, like Magdalene and Thistle Farms, be deeply informed and grounded in the ideas of community held by Jesus and the early church.  But each one of us has communities that we love and want the best for, in which we share a unity of interests and experiences.  How might these communities grow organically out of our experiences and interests and the experiences of the other people who comprise them?  What among our shared experiences and interests might point to ways we might invite others to join us, or provide others with the holistic resources for hope and growth?

There are just some things that we cannot do alone.  We cannot recover from trauma and pain, or find hope and new life, alone.  We cannot face the personal, spiritual, and societal challenges of a complex and changing world, much less find the solutions we need, alone.  We cannot love and be loved, alone.  We need the unity of community.  Not just the unity of shared experiences and interests, but the unity of love.  The kind of love that Jesus taught, that we may not know as we talk about it or believe it, but we sure know it when we see it or experience it.  The love that respects, that teaches by example, that speaks truth with love, that keeps our sense of humor going, that allows and leads to changed minds and changed lives.  That kind of love creates not just the idea of community, but real communities with real unity that we can have faith in to carry us through to hope and goodness.  As the noted cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Whether it is the community of Jesus, the community of the early church, the communities of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, or even we ourselves, AMEN to that.

 

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

A Basket of Summer Fruit

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 10:38-42

Click here to hear the sermon only

A Basket of Summer Fruit

Beloved, it is so good to be back in Marsh Chapel. My deepest thanks to Dean Hill for the invitation to stand in this pulpit again, to Ray and Heidi for the logistics and hospitality, and Jess and Victoria and Justin for their leadership and organization of the liturgy this morning. It is good to be worshipping with you again as we meditate this warm summer morning on a basket of summer fruit. 

You might have memories of summer fruit, of those ripened, sunburst, sweet moments of summer joy and delight. Call them to the mind’s eye for a moment. 

My memory wanders back to when I was a kid, and we would spend a few precious days every summer in Wells Beach, Maine, staying at my grandmother’s small cottage at the end of a dead end road two short blocks from the beach. Our days were filled with swimming and boogie boarding in the icy waters whose temperature hovered right around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (sounds nice on a day like today, right?) My parents and aunts and uncles would allow all of the cousins to swim until our lips turned blue or our teeth chattered. Then, we would be yanked out of the water and warmed up in fluffy beach towels until we had pinked up enough to splash right back in. We would walk along the beach, searching for sand dollars in the shallows. We would carefully crawl around tidal rocks, peeking under barnacled stones to see snails and starfish. As the tide came in and the beach became smaller and smaller, we would retreat to a flat boulder we called the boat rock, begging to stay long enough to be splashed by the seawater as it rushed around us before retreating to higher ground. We would track sand back to the cottage, hose down our feet, and scarf down hot dogs and fried clams, and, for one single glorious meal each year, a shiny red lobster, which we would crack into with messy delight. We would spend hours curled up in an old slip covered chair reading the best in children’s fiction. I met Aslan in that chair, learned the secret about Severus Snape, followed a hobbit to a misty mountain, all bathed in the warmth of the summer sun. 

Once, perhaps twice, we would wrangle some quarters from an adult and would walk to the shockingly painted teal blue arcade, to trade those quarters for a few precious tickets, which we would pool and save and never spend, hoping for that day, untold years hence, when we might have the 3,000 tickets to buy the giant stuffed animal or cheap electronic device. Once, perhaps twice, we would pile into the car and run circles around the giant wooden sign at the Scoop Deck, which listed some 50+ homemade ice cream flavors, and we would shriek from delight and from the sugar high as we devoured waffle cones the size of our heads, piled high with peppermint stick ice cream or triple chocolate fudge and eating our way down to the delicate mini marshmallow at the bottom of the cone, which held the ice cream in and kept the whole contraption together. We would make a tremendous mess. Once, perhaps twice, we would wander the halls of an antiques hall that held about as much junk as antiques. We would stare at old tools, and mishandle vintage toys, and gawk at costume jewelry, and we would try to restrain ourselves from touching anything too breakable. Once, perhaps only once, we would light sparklers after dark and dance alongside the fireflies, drawing circles of light at the end of our fingertips. 

When you call to your mind your own sunburst moments of joy and delight, what summer fruit comes to mind? Perhaps it is a quiet lake, a wooded path, bursting forth to a mountain view. Perhaps it is a field of strawberries, plucked, and a warm kitchen of jarring jam. Perhaps it is the strains of an outdoor concert and the comfort of a blanket spread on the ground. What comes to mind that looks, smells, sounds, tastes, like a basket of summer fruit?

These moments are precious because they seem, because they are both endless and terribly fleeting. A basket of summer fruit. Amos understood this in choosing the image of summer fruit at the outset of a prophecy about divine judgment for unfair labor practices, condemning those who trample the needy, boost prices, and cheat with dishonest scales. We don’t see it as clearly in English, but there is a word play in the Hebrew here between the word for summer fruit and the end. They are a half a thought apart. So, too, are fruit and fruition, ends and eternities. And we know this from experience to be true, right? This is just the time of summer when we both bask in its endlessness and begin to feel that creeping sense that it is somehow, already, almost over. Children know this, deep in their bones; they can feel when school looms. Tiny sun-filled strawberries fade quickly, sunburst wild blueberries wither, peaches and nectarines overripen into mush. 

The life of faith lived in community teaches us to appreciate those summer moments of joy, both endless and always ending. This is the lesson that we learn in Amos and in Luke, too, from Mary’s meditative focus on the joy of encounter with the divine. To savor our summer fruits.

The life of faith lived in community also teaches us about the labor it takes to enjoy such summer fruit. This is the lesson we learn in Amos and in Luke, too, from Martha’s labor to make space for joy. There is another way to tell the story of this idyllic, childlike wondrous scene. You who have been what my fellow millennials call #adulting for a little or a long time know this well, too. 

After all, that two block jaunt to the beach required lugging supplies to keep us kids happy and healthy; chairs, towels, sunblock, boogie boards, umbrella, more towels, snacks, drinks, a cooler, plastic shovels and buckets for playing in the sand. Our tiny arms could carry some things, but the adults often ended up checking the list and carrying the majority of the burden. An adult, too, without the circulation of the very young, would need to freeze alongside us in the ocean, splashed with that 60 degree Fahrenheit water, to make sure that we didn’t swim too deep and that we didn’t catch hypothermia. An adult, too, would have towels ready and then remind us to reapply sunscreen. An adult would precariously balance alongside us on the tidal rocks, tending to scrapes from the barnacles and protecting the wildlife from being permanently transplanted from their homes. As the tide came in and the beach became smaller and smaller, an adult would patiently move all of the beach luggage, once, twice, thrice, away from the water, and ultimately, would wade waist deep to rescue us from the boat rock as the tide became too high and our shrieks of delight turned to shrieks of fear. An adult would beg us to rinse off our feet and spend an hour sweeping all of the sand that made it in the house anyway at the end of the week. 

Those hot dogs didn’t cook themselves, and someone needed to stand in line at the lobster pound and the ice cream parlor, to clean up the detritus of the seafood feast and the dribbles of melted ice cream, and someone had to do all those dishes. So many dishes. Grown-ups, too, would want a few precious moments to read in the warmth of the summer sun, or to wander around an antique shop without worrying whether they’d need to pay for a broken vase, and maybe, once all of the above work had been done, they too, could enjoy the taste of summer fruits. 

 

Martha and Mary, Mary and Martha. There are two ways that this gospel story is usually preached. Sometimes these two followers of Jesus are abstracted into ways of living in faith. Mary the contemplative, Martha the activist. Both are needed.

But sometimes these two women are treated as stereotypical characters in a vacation drama. After all, this story falls in the middle of the Lukan travel narrative. There are pitfalls ahead for the lazy preacher on a lazy summer Sunday. Mary and Martha are too easily pitted against one another, rivals for Jesus’s attention and favor. It’s too easy to portray Martha as an overworked housewife, complaining about Mary not helping out in the kitchen. In too many sermons, I have heard this story preached in this way, with the final message, geared far too often to women, “Don’t worry so much, everything is fine, try to relax and not stress so much.” 

Women who hear this story preached in this way often get frustrated. Feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza paints a vivid picture of how women hear these lazy exegetes. When women hear sermons like this, women who make a congregation run, especially in a church that is so often sustained by women, who teach vacation bible school, brew coffee, clean altar linens, plant flowers, organize fundraisers, call those who are shut in at home, who “do all of this often without ever receiving a ‘thank you,’ [they get frustrated.] They therefore identify with Martha who openly complains. They resent Jesus who seems to be ungrateful and unfair in taking Mary’s side. But they repress this resentment [it is Jesus after all] and vent it against other women who, like Mary, have abandoned the traditional feminine role.” 

To preach this passage as a “chill out” message to women too busy with household chores is a misreading of the text, a myopic telling of this story as only about Martha and Mary’s gender, and a misunderstanding of what it means to find faith in community. Instead, we need to reconsider what this pause for respite, this moment of hospitality, can mean for the life of faith in community. 

Two lessons from Luke help us to read this passage to sustain and nourish the life of faith lived in community. First, since we are in the Lukan travel narrative, we need to remember that the disciples are sent out in pairs; at the beginning of Luke 10, Jesus was sending out the seventy to teach, heal, and preach. Disciples come in pairs in Luke, and they are not sent out as polarized lessons for the church pitted against one another, they are sent out to work together for the sake of the gospel. So the story of Martha is not about a hostess too busy in the kitchen to enjoy her Jesus party; no, these are two disciples doing the work of discipleship. Martha has questions about the work of faith. To be sure, she is anxious about that work, but this is not only about worrying about who does the dishes, no she is anxious about about the partnership of ministry, about hospitality, abut diakonia, about the service work that makes the community of faith the community of faith. And her question to Jesus, a fair one, is how to work together in partnership to accomplish all that needs doing for community to thrive. Jesus’s answer, then, is not a rebuke of the work, this is no patronizing reminder to chill out, but rather, a reminder that making space for transformative divine encounter is the point of the community of faith. Martha’s question, too, reminds us that on this earth and in this life, it takes labor to make space for joy.

Which brings me to my second point. I’ve always wondered in this passage where all the other disciples were. After all, where were the rest of the disciples, anyway? They seem to follow Jesus just about everywhere. They were there just a moment ago reporting on their work and having a little tête a tête with Jesus. They’ll reappear again in just a moment, in just a few verses. just in time to be taught the Lord’s prayer. So where are Peter, and James, and John, and the others? Were they off in the backyard drinking a beer while dinner was made and the dishes were done? If you look through the gospels, you’ll find that the male apostles seem pretty helpless, especially when it comes to fixing meals. Jesus himself has to step up more than once to put dinner on the table, whether that is through miraculous multiplication of loaves, or grilling the fish on the shore after the resurrection. Jesus shares in the labor of the community of faith, but the disciples often don’t. Can you imagine the disciples can’t even cook breakfast for themselves and Jesus after the resurrection? This passage, and the glaring absence of the disciples, reminds us that we need the whole community of faith to do the work to make space for joy. 

So sometimes, I picture in my mind’s eye this scene from Luke 10:38-42. Mary is speaking with Jesus, and Martha is stuck with all the work of hospitality, all of the work of discipleship, all of the work of the community of faith. Desperate for a little help, she comes through the doorway, squints as her eyes adjust to the outside light, and asks Jesus for Mary’s assistance. Jesus reminds her about the joy of divine encounter. “What Mary has chosen shall not be taken away from her,” he says. Martha stares, a small furrow forming at her brow, ready to ask a follow up, but Jesus continues, “Martha, you are worried, there is only need of one thing.” And Jesus stops and stares, pointedly, through the door, at Peter, and James, and John, and the other disciples laughing inside. They fall silent. Jesus repeats, a little more loudly this time “There is only need of one thing.” The disciples get up, put down their drinks, and begin to set the table for dinner and start doing some of the dishes. Martha smiles, and Mary laughs. 

Beloved, there is only need of one thing. Transformative divine encounter. The role of the community of faith, the life of faith lived out in community, is to make space for the joy of divine encounter. And, beloved, it takes work to make space for the joy of divine encounter. That is the work not of any one of us, but of the community. Faith in community makes space for all of us to share both the joy and the work of divine encounter. To share the labor and the harvest of a basket of summer fruit. To share in the endless and always ending sweetness of this life in preparation for eternity. 

I now know, as an adult, just how much work went into those sunburst summer vacations in Maine. But I also know, as an adult, how to see, if you looked at just the right angle, the same childlike joy in the faces of the kids and grownups alike. Joy would spread like wildfire among the adults while watching the kids dance alongside the fireflies, drawing circles of light with their sparklers. And sometimes the whole family, even the adults, would dance alongside the children, if only to keep them from burning their fingers. Beloved, that is faith in community.  

Amen. 

-The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley 

Bearing Fruit

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 10:25-37

Click here to hear the sermon only

Bearing Fruit

Good morning! It’s good to be back with all of you here at Marsh Chapel. Summer is here and I am so glad. For me, summer means a slower pace, a time to relax and recharge. At a place like BU, the school year can be hectic, so by the time we hit June and July, it’s wonderful to have a moment to catch our breath, take stock of the previous academic year, and prepare for what the next year will offer.

Summer is also a time for travel and new experiences. Some of us are fortunate enough to have the means to take vacations from our regular lives and see new places or at least take a break from our places of work for a little while. But travel brings its own set of challenges – air travel requires you to be at the airport hours before your departure, remembering to take all of the liquids out of your carry-on bag before going through screening, lines after lines after lines of people all anxious to get their travel started in the most expedient way possible. This week, I read an article that confirmed what many of us already observe – air travel affects us emotionally and physically. Cabin pressures can cause some strange changes, like affecting our sense of taste, leading more people to crave or enjoy tomato juice on a plane than they do on the ground. The pressure inside cabins can also affect our mood – we can become more anxious, less friendly, and experience more tension because of decreased oxygen levels. Add on to that the stress of traveling to new places, individual fears and anxieties around travel, the cost of travel and/or vacations, and in some cases, broken forms of transportation and communication that can lead to frustration and all out despair when it comes to getting to where we need to go. It’s no wonder so many people dread the “getting there” part of traveling. 

For two weeks in the last month I was lucky enough to travel to Germany. While I had wonderful experiences during my time in Germany – getting to meet new people, experience the culture of my heritage, and learning new and interesting facts about Luther’s life and times- it was during the not so great experiences that I came to appreciate the kindness and compassion of others. Here’s what happened: I missed my train. Not because I was late; not because I read the schedule wrong; not because I couldn’t get a ticket. No, I missed my train because it came early An hour early. Now, I know you’re saying to yourself: “how is that possible?” Good question. Because in Germany, when there is construction, the trains come early. This is what I learned. 

After missing my train, the rest of my day was spent relying on the kindness of strangers. The woman at the information desk in the Wittenberg train station tried her best to explain to me in a mixture of German and English that even though I missed my train because it came early, I could get on the next train, but that I wouldn’t have an assigned seat. Not understanding that I could still ride on the train without a seat, I panicked thinking I would be spending another unplanned night in Wittenberg. The woman at the desk was trying so hard to help me, even going as far to type into google translate for me, but the translation was incomplete, and I still wasn’t understanding that I could still travel. Fortunately, the woman was willing to speak on the phone with my German friend in Munich, whom I was travelling to see, and he was able to clarify that I could still get on the next train even though I didn’t have a seat assigned.

Once on the train, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I had a huge bag and struggled to get it on the train. Fortunately, a man standing near the door grabbed one end and helped me thrust it up. I also thought finding a space to settle in would be easy. I was wrong. The space in between the main cars that I entered was already occupied by people who were sitting, standing, and generally looking uncomfortable as the train sped along. I stood awkwardly just inside the doorway trying to decide what the best course of action might be. A man across the way caught my eye and smiled, so I made my way over to him. He started speaking to me in German commenting on how full the train was. I then explained that I had already missed my earlier train and that I wasn’t looking forward to standing for the rest of my 4-hour train ride to Munich, especially since I was still tending to a sprained ankle. Without hesitation, he immediately sprung to action and grabbed a porter, explaining to her that I needed to find a seat because I was injured. She replied that there was room in the dining car and instructed me that it was 3 cars from where we were. The man directed me where I needed to go and wished me luck with the rest of my trip as I set off lugging my bag to the dining car. Thinking I was all set after finding a place to settle in, we stopped in Leipzig to let passengers off. An announcement came over the PA system for the train – it wasn’t a regular announcement that was translated into English as the other announcements had been – it was only in German. A chorus of groans erupted around me and people began to look annoyed. I sat for a few minutes thinking of who I could ask for assistance, as I had no idea what was going on. Seated across from me were two German women who had been in conversation since I got on the train. I tentatively asked them if they spoke English and they said “Oh yes!” and then proceeded to explain to me that our train would be delayed an hour and 50 minutes because of a fire near the tracks we were supposed to take. They welcomed me to traveling on the Deutsche Bahn, which they said was “always an adventure.” An adventure indeed. They continued to update me as we sat waiting for more announcements, ending with at least some good news that the conductors had found an alternative route that would only make us a half hour late to Munich. I made it to Munich 5 hours later than I was originally scheduled, and was never so glad for a travel day to end.

I tell you this story not because I’m seeking your pity, but to highlight the care I received from others. Granted, this was not a life and death situation, like that of the Good Samaritan story we heard in the Gospel today, but my day would have been a lot worse had it not been for the kindness of strangers who were willing to help me out when I needed it. I also needed to be willing to accept the help of others in order for the story to end well. Being receptive to help can sometimes be half the battle. We’re all familiar with the age-old trope of the stubborn person who refuses to ask for directions when they are very clearly lost. How many times in our lives are we too stubborn or unwilling to let others help us? Why do we find it difficult to accept help, or seek it out?

Getting help from others doesn’t mean we are weak. It doesn’t mean we’re incapable. It doesn’t mean we’re less than. It means we’re human. We are all here in this one crazy and too short life on Earth together. Being willing to accept help in whatever form it may take – a listening ear, a ride, or physical assistance – requires a bit of humility on our part as well as openness. 

Sometimes when we reflect on the story of the good Samaritan we are drawn to the position of the Samaritan in the story. After all, Jesus uses this as an example to demonstrate to the lawyer questioning him what love of neighbor really entails – seeing the humanity in all who need help, regardless of who they are. Another interpretation of this story by early commentators exists, however, in which humanity is not represented by the Good Samaritan, but rather Christ fills that role. Humanity is the man in the ditch. This depiction emphasizes the salvific quality of Christ; Christ is the unexpected healer and savior of all who helps us out of the ditch. The inn and innkeeper are then the church which cares for and supports us as we recover from our injuries, which in this case would be the injuries to our soul, the sin that has taken ahold of us. By holding these two interpretations in tension with one another, we can understand our role as both needing to accept the love of God as well as express that love to others by showing compassion to those we meet along the way. We must be able to see ourselves as both the person in the ditch and the Good Samaritan, as compassion is built on empathy.

In his theology of justification by faith, Martin Luther emphasized a dualistic understanding of God’s righteousness – that God provides an outside righteousness to all Christians, something that they do not have to do anything to earn. Luther calls this “alien righteousness.” Recognition of the external righteousness granted to us becomes more apparent as we acknowledge the presence of God in our lives. Our faith in God reinforces our knowledge and acceptance of this alien righteousness that we have no control over, but of which we can be made aware and incorporate into our understanding of the world around us. When we do things like come together in worship, hear or read the scriptures, or connect with others in community, we are reminded of the grace offered to us by God through Christ.

The other form of righteousness Luther describes is proper righteousness. These are the expressions of Christian love that people share with one another. Luther is quick to point out that this proper righteousness relies on the presence of alien righteousness in order to be effective. God’s love and care for us allows us to express the same love and care to others. It is in this way that we bear the fruit of the spirit which is spoken of in the epistle to the Colossians that we heard today. You’ll note that in this letter by Paul (or someone who writes as Paul) that he also emphasizes to the community in Colossae that it is the hope in God that they have found through hearing the Gospel that will cause them to bear the fruit of good works in the world. Our ability to be in service to others is informed by our ability to accept God’s love in the first place.

Luther’s describes the relationship between these forms of righteousness through the metaphor of a tree and the kind of fruit it bears in his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian:”

It is clear that the fruits do not bear the tree and that the tree does not grow on the fruits, also that, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruits and the fruits grow on the trees. As it is necessary, therefore, that the trees exist before their fruits and the fruits do not make trees either good or bad, but rather as the trees are, so are the fruits they bear; so a man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked. 

A tree must have good nutrition, proper sunlight, proper minerals in order to flourish and produce good fruit. A tree that does not have these foundational elements will not produce good fruit, if any fruit at all. The person then, must be grounded in the faith and knowledge of God’s grace in order to produce good fruits and works in the world. To expect the fruit to be good without the rootedness in the soil of the grace of God is to not understand the ways in which God’s grace is given freely to all.

We all know that living in community is a challenge. We are each individuals with our own hopes, needs, desires, and motives. Sometimes those hopes and needs align with those of our neighbors; that makes our community an easy place to live in because we agree on seeking out an existence that has a similar world view. More than likely, however, our perspectives will clash with others, leading to disagreement, and in some cases a distrust or even disdain of our neighbor. Sometimes those we think we can trust turn out to not be trustworthy at all, causing us harm instead of love and care.

The question of “who is my neighbor?” still haunts us today. We all fail to see our neighbors for who they are; other human beings who need the care and compassion we also need to survive and thrive in our lives. We may allow things like economic differences, differences in skin color or nationality, or differences in gender shape who we view as our neighbor. Jesus reminds us that those things cannot matter if we are truly seeking to love our neighbor in the way that God commands. 

We must be willing to both accept the compassion of others as well as express that compassion if we are to join together in community. Recently it seems as though much of the public discourse in our communities lacks an emphasis on morality. In an effort to seem “balanced” people draw false equivalencies over issues in our country, failing to acknowledge how certain actions are morally wrong. For example, caging children in detention centers without adequate sanitation and care dehumanizes them and demonstrates a definite problem with the moral compass of our country. If we cannot have compassion for others based on the fact that they too are human, they too are God’s children, they too deserve to be taken care of, then we fail to bear good fruit. If we continue to allow for the degradation of our Earth at the expense of those who are most vulnerable, then we fail to bear good fruit. If we become accustomed to mass shootings and the countless lives lost to gun violence in our country without an adequate response of horror and action, then we fail to bear good fruit.  

I implore you to remember where your roots lie so that you may come to bear good fruit. Your roots lie in the love of God that surpasses all understanding, whose grace is bestowed on us as a free gift that we can choose to employ or not. Let us accept that gift of love and live out our commandment to share that love with others. We are called to be servants and love to our neighbors. Our neighbors are individuals who we encounter every day, but are also those who we may never meet and may only ever understand as an abstracted idea. Our service to others includes seeking justice and righteousness for all, no matter who they are. 

At the end of each worship service, we typically end with a benediction and a response. The benediction offers a blessing to the community gathered and the sending a reminder of that which we are to take with us as we leave worship. Here we typically use “God be in my head” as our sending response.  In my tradition, the service typically ends with the leader dismissing the congregation with the words “Go in peace; serve the Lord” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” So to prepare you for the end of the service, I will state the benediction ending with this dismissal. Let’s practice… “Go in peace, serve the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.” And as you hear and respond to these words, take to heart what the words mean in light of bearing fruit in the world – having been nourished by the words, music, and community of this service today, take them with you to serve and love your neighbor.

Amen.

Dr. Jessica A. H. Chicka

Betwixt Curation and Creation

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Betwixt Curation and Creation

In t’ other hundred, o’er yon swarthy moor,
Deep in the mire with tawny rush beset;
Where bleak sea-breezes echo from the shore,
And foggy damps infect the noontide heat,
There lies a Country Curate’s dismal seat:
View well those barren heaths with sober eye,
And wonder how a man can live so wretchedly.

(“The Country Curate,” Gentleman’s Magazine 7, January 1737, 52-53, stanza 1)

You are likely familiar with the verb, “to curate,” meaning “to look after and preserve” as in a museum. You may also be familiar with the more contemporary colloquial usage of the term, meaning “to select, organize, and present,” usually applied either to content, such as for a website, or to people, such as for a performance. Regardless, the activity curation describes remains relatively passive with respect to that which the curator orders. You may be less familiar with the heteronymous noun “curate,” referring to “one entrusted with the cure of souls; a spiritual pastor,” that is, a member of the clergy. (Oxford English Dictionary).

Alas, the poor priest described in the 18th century Spenserian poem, “The Country Curate,” appears doomed to conflate the two meanings:

Each sun arises in a noisome fog,
Tir’d of their beds they rise as soon as light;
With like disgust their summers on they jog,
And o’er a few stray chips their winter night:
Such is the married Essex Curate’s plight!
Tho’ seasons change, no sense of change they know,
But with a discontented eye view all things here below.

(“The Country Curate,” stanza 7)

Inheritor of tradition, the curate who curates merely looks after and preserves the faith as though the seasons do not change. Tradition, the living faith of the dead, as Jeroslav Pelikan reminds us, is given over to its poor reflection, traditionalism, that is, the dead faith of the living. (Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Vindication of Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986). And in the end? The curate who merely curates is not even pitiable.

Still worse and worse her lashing tongue he feels,
The spurns of fortune and the weight of years:
The post-horse thus, an ancient racer, reels,
No longer now a steddy course he steers,
His knees now tremble and he hangs his ears;
He sweats, he totters, cover’d o’er with gore,
And falls unpity’d, as he liv’d before.

(“The Country Curate,” stanza 12)

The theology of curation is reflected in one of the traditional prayers for Compline, the night office that we offer here at Marsh Chapel on Monday evenings during the academic year, “that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness” (The Book of Common Prayer, 133). Since God is changeless, change is clearly not of God, and so the work of leadership is to simply curate unchanged the institutions and traditions we have inherited lest the faithful, and we ourselves, become weary. 

Yet, change is an enduring feature of our world, and as the curate learned, mere curation cannot enable a steady course amidst change. Wearying though change may be, attempting to deny or to resist change is at least as tiresome, and often as not tragic, as in the case of the country curate. After all, as Alfred North Whitehead reminds us, “the essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things” (Science and the Modern World, 13). Indeed, change is part and parcel of the working of things, and change is often solemnly remorseless in its application regardless of the predilection to deny or to inhibit it: Denying that humanity is responsible for climate change does nothing to mitigate its effects. Treating refugees as subhuman does nothing to dampen their desperation to flee. Repurposing maintenance funds does nothing for the upkeep of tracks, signals, and subway cars, making derailment inevitable. Failure to read the syllabus does not make the paper any less due.

To cope with change, creation is the proper response, rather than curation. When the traditions and institutions of the past no longer accord us with reality, we must create new ones that do. Such creative endeavor was the cause for celebration just this past week, namely, the 243rd anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness… When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

Creation is rarely clean or clear cut. The first stab at a new government following the Declaration of Independence was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which lasted a whole twelve years before being replaced by the Constitution of the United States that we know today. The need for the change is recorded in George Washington’s cover letter to the Constitution addressed to the President of Congress: “The friends of our country have long seen and desired that the power of making war, peace, and treaties, that of levying money, and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities, should be fully and effectually vested in the General Government of the Union; but the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident: hence results the necessity of a different organization.” Hence, three branches of government with attendant checks and balances among them. 

Likewise, the business world tells us of disruptive innovation, whereby an innovation creates a new market that eventually disrupts its predecessor market by providing value in a new and better way. So, Wikipedia disrupts Britannica, the word processor disrupts the typewriter, and the smartphone disrupts, well, pretty much everything, (including, I dare say, this sermon). Bringing on the new requires setting aside the old, a loss that is rarely unambiguous even when the innovation is a signal advance. Indeed, as the Declaration of Independence itself reminds us, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

For all that the curate who curates is one prevalent model for religious leaders to approach situations in flux, the mode of creation is hardly foreign to religion. Jesus and Paul were, among other things, religious innovators, in varying degrees of tensive relationship at different times with emerging rabbinic Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy and culture, the Roman Empire, and other religious movements they encountered along the way. Monasticism was a creative response to the change of Christianity from a persecuted minority to the official religion of the Empire. The Franciscans and Dominicans arose in part to reform the cloistered monasteries, and then Martin Luther set off a creative reform of all of Western Christianity. Methodism, adherents of which founded Boston University, started as a creative movement to invigorate piety within Anglicanism. Today, as the institutional dynamics of denominations provoke rampant disaffiliation, new models of spiritual engagement are emerging, from multiple religious belonging, to new monasticisms, to pub church, and more. Curation need not be the defining mark of religion. The creative spirit runs deep as well.

For the past two weeks we have drunk deeply from the wellsprings of wisdom of Dr. Robert Franklin, who professes moral leadership at Emory University in no small part on the basis of his own practice of moral leadership, especially as President each of Morehouse College and the Interdenominational Theological Center, both in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Franklin adjured us toward moral leadership, encouraging us to virtue and to act out of a redemptive discontent at the socio-political morass of our time such that we might come to stand above the world, that God might lift the world through us. Today I submit to you that moral leaders seek to cultivate virtue and pursue a socio-political analysis that results in redemptive discontent precisely so as to enable their discernment of the proper path forward for the traditions and institutions they lead betwixt curation and creation. Without curation there is no continuity, and without continuity there is no tradition or institution of which to speak. Without creation, however, change must inevitably overwhelm traditions and institutions, grinding them into dust and casting them off onto the slaughter-bench of history. The moral leader must harness each, curation and creation, as the situation at hand demands.

The understanding of moral leadership that we inherit from ancient China helps us to gain perspective on the role and efficacy of moral leaders. It does so by situating leadership in the wider frame of not only the traditions and institutions in which leadership is expressed, but indeed the whole cosmic order. Traditions and institutions are understood as rituals, rites, or rules of ceremony. Rites are much more than church services. They are any and all conventional behaviors patterned so as to harmonize those related by them with one another and with everything else in the world. So the 27th section of the “Li Yun” chapter of the Liji, the Classic of Rites:

From all this it follows that rules of ceremony must be traced to their origin in the Grand Unity. This separated and became heaven and earth. It revolved and became the dual force (in nature). It changed and became the four seasons. It was distributed and became the breathings (thrilling in the universal frame). Its (lessons) transmitted (to men) are called its orders; the law and authority of them is in Heaven. While the rules of ceremony have their origin in heaven, the movement of them reaches to earth. The distribution of them extends to all the business (of life). They change with the seasons; they agree in reference to the (variations of) lot and condition. In regard to man, they serve to nurture (his nature). They are practiced by means of offerings, acts of strength, words and postures of courtesy, in eating and drinking, in the observances of capping, marriage, mourning, sacrificing, archery, chariot-driving, audiences, and friendly missions. 

(Legge, James, trans. The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism Part III. Vol. 3. The Sacred Books of the East 27. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1885).

Notably, rituals are not static. Their movement “reaches to the earth” from heaven. “They change with the seasons.” When things change, they change to accord with the new situation. 

Even though they may change, tending to rituals, to the patterns that guide our interactions and relationships, is important precisely because, as the 28th section goes on to say:

They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.

Traditions and institutions may only ever be relatively reliable, but life without them devolves quickly into the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (chap. 13). Hence the conclusion arrived at in the 29th section of the “Li Yun” chapter of the Liji:

Thus, rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right. (The idea of) right makes the distinction between things, and serves to regulate (the manifestation of) humanity.

What then of moral leadership? One of the primary virtues cultivated by moral leaders is 義 yi, which means rightness, righteousness, or appropriateness. Rituals are expressions of what is right, and moral leadership determines whether or not a particular ritual is in fact such an expression of righteousness. Rituals that do in fact express right merely need to be curated. Rituals that do not may need some creative reformation or transformation. And it is surely conceivable that a situation might arise for which no extant ritual would be appropriate, and so a moral leader would have to create one wholesale from scratch. Most of the time, however, moral leadership has to do principally with the subtle art of negotiating the tension between curation and creation in order to cultivate rituals, traditions, and institutions that facilitate righteousness and harmony.

All well and good as far as a theory of moral leadership goes, but a few examples would certainly not go amiss at this point. Surely, the Liji is replete with plenty of excellent examples, but rather than take the time to explain who Yu, Tang, Wen, Wu, King Cheng, and the Duke of Zhou are such that the examples might make any sense, it may be helpful to turn to some more familiar texts.

Consider, then, the moral leadership of the prophet Elisha as he responds to the arrival of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram:

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 

(2 Kings 5: 1-14, NRSV).

It is little wonder that the king of Israel suspects a nefarious plot. Curing leprosy is no small thing, and the king of Aram has neglected, in his letter, to mention that he has insider information that such healing might be accomplished in Israel. The king of Israel is left to suspect that the king of Aram is attempting to provoke a conflict on the basis of the king of Israel refusing to heal the commander of the army of the king of Aram.

Enter Elisha, stage left. As a moral leader, which is what a prophet is, after all, Elisha seeks the way of righteousness. It would be reasonable to assume that healing by a prophet in Israel would be reserved for Israelites, for the followers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and thus unavailable to inhabitants of other realms who practice other cults. In offering to heal Naaman, Elisha is defying this expectation, expanding the tradition of Israelite religion, and by proxy the institution of the kingdom of Israel as constituted by those who profess faith in Yahweh, to include any who would demonstrate such faith by following his instructions.

Elisha is clearly closer to curation than creation. He only moves the line so far. He never even speaks to Naaman directly, sending a messenger instead. His instructions remain within the realm of Israelite rituals of healing, namely, washing in the Jordan. No, the rivers of Damascus will not, in fact, do. Yet, if he is willing, Naaman may be made clean, may be healed, may be included. The creativity Elisha expresses is simply to practice a more generous hospitality than might have been expected. The tradition as it stood was inappropriate to this new situation and had to be expanded. His is the creativity of redrawing the boundaries of the tradition and the institution so as to enact what Second Isaiah would later also encourage:

Enlarge the site of your tent,
   and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
   and strengthen your stakes. 
For you will spread out to the right and to the left,
   and your descendants will possess the nations
   and will settle the desolate towns. (Isaiah 54: 2-3, NRSV)

So, too, consider the moral leadership of Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, as expressed in his letter to the Galatians:

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.

Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. 

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6: 1-16, NRSV).

Here we see Paul navigating a number of ritual frames in order to achieve the delicate balance of righteousness. In the rhetoric of flesh and spirit we hear the backdrop of Hellenistic thought that set the terms for conceptualizing the spiritual life in the communities where Paul ministered. So too we hear Paul articulating boundaries between those who follow his teaching and those who follow the teachings of others: “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.”

One of the teachings that others who have encountered the Galatians have apparently been insisting upon is the ritual requirement of circumcision. On one hand, Paul has a rather sophisticated theological argument for why circumcision, while not necessarily objectionable, is neither at all necessary. What is necessary? Becoming a new spiritual creation by spiritual crucifixion with Christ to the world. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that Paul needed to work terribly hard to convince, say, about half of the church in Galatia that circumcision was not really necessary.

Here then we have a far more creative, and less curatorial, approach to tradition and institution. Paul is renegotiating boundaries, breaking down boundaries between Jews and gentiles in Christ, even while raising boundaries between followers of his teaching and followers of the teaching of others. Paul swings the pendulum to a midpoint between curation and creation because he needs to for the sake of appropriateness. What was good for Jews in Jerusalem would not necessarily work well – politically, culturally, or practically – for the non-Jewish Christians to whom God called him to minister. Paul had to curate the heart of the gospel that he had received and creatively incarnate it in the soil to which he was sent, where curation alone would surely not do. Indeed, that Christianity endures today is largely a testament to the curation of the church through creative moral leadership by Paul.

Paul is great and all, but what of Jesus? Jesus, it seems, could find precious little worth curating amongst the traditions and institutions of the religion of his day. The apocalyptic frame of the gospels is quite strange to us, driving as it does a sense of urgency that seems to have failed to bear out some two thousand years later. Yet it is that very urgency that presses Jesus to abandon the traditions and institutions he inherited and instead send his followers out to effectively start anew.

Jesus erects clear boundaries, in Luke’s gospel, between his own movement and the religious institutions of his day. When Jesus denounces the Pharisees, the lawyers whine, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too,” to which Jesus replies, “Woe also to you lawyers!” (Luke 11: 45-46, NRSV). Jesus is clear also that each and every person must choose to situate themselves on one side of the boundary or the other. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12: 51, NRSV).

Far more interesting than how he goes about creating barriers against existing institutions is how Jesus goes about creating his own movement. Jesus himself may not have come to bring peace, but peace is precisely what Jesus sends his followers out to announce: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’” (Luke 10: 5, NRSV). The mission of the seventy is a mission of movement building. It is deeply relational: person by person, household by household, town by town. It is the harvesting, the calling together of a community built on righteousness, that is, on peace, hospitality, justice, and the grace of God. For those that share in peace, well and good, and for those that do not, wipe off the dust from your feet and move on.

At times, moral leaders may find that there is so little rightness left in the traditions and institutions they inherit that they must cast them off and create new traditions and institutions from neigh on whole cloth. Doing so is precarious, as the authors of the Declaration of Independence note and as those who call for such revolutionary changes demonstrate, figures like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin King, as their acts of institutional rejection and new creation result in their deaths. Important to remember is that this extremity of creation is not a foregone conclusion embraced from the start, but rather a necessity that arises for the sake of rightness, of righteousness, of appropriateness. The moral of the story for moral leaders is not that new traditions and institutions are always necessary, but rather that strategies of curation, reformation, renewal, transformation, or recreation must be judiciously selected for the sake of traditions and institutions being able to effectively harmonize us with one another and the world. Moral leadership of traditions and institutions is the discernment of appropriateness between curation and creation. Cultivate, then, the virtue of appropriateness, of rightness, of righteousness so that you may be a moral leader, that God may lift the world up through you, just as God has lifted the world through Elisha, Paul, and Jesus.

Let us stand, then, as we are able, for the reading of the gospel.

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

 

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20, NRSV).

Amen.

-Br. Lawrence Whitney, LC+, PhD