Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let My People Grow

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn

We concluded our rapid-paced run through the book of Revelation this past Wednesday evening. One of the facts we discovered was that the writer of Revelation relied very heavily on passages from Hebrew scripture to develop a number of his ideas and images.
At one point in Revelation, God is judging earthlings, and God sends plagues on the earth. Everything in the book of Revelation is symbolic, of course, so we do not think that God ever has or ever would literally send plagues to harm people and/or the earth itself so something symbolic is being suggested. Even so, many of those plagues parallel the plagues in the book of Exodus that were said to have been sent on Egypt by God because the Pharaoh wasn’t willing to release the Hebrews whom he had enslaved. Even when God told him, through Moses and Aaron, to let God’s people, the ancient Hebrews, go, he said, “No.”
Pharaoh had steadfastly refused to liberate his hardworking slaves so there were plagues sent to sort of help Pharaoh change his mind. He and his brother- and sister-Egyptians would suffer greatly because of Pharaoh’s stubbornness.
I myself would read Genesis not quite as symbolically as I read Revelation, but close. No way do I think that God really sent horrible plagues on people who were doing nothing more than their sovereign required of them--keeping the Hebrews enslaved. Anyway, this is how the story was being told at the time it came to be written down and saved for posterity.
God sent Moses and Moses’ brother, Aaron, to the Pharaoh with the message that he should let God’s people go; that is, he should free them from slavery. The first thing Pharaoh needs to work out for them on their way to freedom is to let them go on a three-days’ journey so that they can worship their God as they believed they were supposed to. Would they come back after that and be good little Hebrews? Well, uh, you figure it out!

...Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “This is what Yahweh, God of Israel, says, `Let my people go, so that they can hold a feast in my honor in the desert.’”

“Who is Yahweh,” Pharaoh replied, “for me to obey what he says and let Israel go? I know nothing of Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.”

“The God of the Hebrews has encountered us,” they replied. “Give us leave to make a three-days’ journey into the desert and sacrifice to Yahweh our God, or he will strike us with a plague or with the sword.”

The king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, what do you mean by distracting the people from their work? Get back to your forced labor.” And Pharaoh said, “Now that the people have grown to such numbers in the country, what do you mean by interrupting their forced labor?”

That very day, Pharaoh gave the order to the people’s taskmasters and their scribes, “Do not go on providing the people with straw for brick-making as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you will exact the same quantity of bricks from them as before, not reducing it at all, since they are lazy, and that is why their cry is, `Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Give these people more work to do, and see they do it instead of listening to lying speeches” (Exod 5:1-9 New Jerusalem Bible).

OK! So much for God’s position and the Pharaoh’s position. Yahweh God said, “Let the Hebrews go free; to begin with, they need to make sacrifices to me; and then there’s the whole matter of general freedom.”
Pharaoh responded to Moses and Aaron with a message for their God who had sent them to him, “No way. They aren’t going free, and, in fact, for even pausing long enough from their work to ponder freedom we’re really going to make it tough on them. We’ve been supplying their materials for them so they can make bricks; well, now we’re going to require them to produce as many bricks as before, but in addition they will have to gather their own materials.” This Pharaoh was a nasty pharaoh.
What happens is that this horrible cycle ensues. Moses and Aaron tell the Pharaoh that God has demanded the release of the Hebrews, and Pharaoh says, “Nope.” Then, as a judgment on him and his people, though they had no choice but to comply with the Pharaoh’s demands, a plague hits them. There were ten rounds of this nonsense before Pharaoh finally agreed to let God’s people go, and even after letting them go, the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his military out to find them and bring them back.

The first plague on Pharaoh was the turning of all their drinking water, all their useable water, into blood. Wouldn’t that have done the trick?
The bloody water didn’t do the trick so after the next, “No,” from Pharaoh, the God of the book of Exodus sent frogs that were all over the people, in their homes, in their beds, everywhere.
You’d think the frogs would do the trick, but no. Next came a plague of gnats or lice; it’s hard to tell which it actually was, but either would have been horrible--gnat or lice infestation, all over your body, in your hair, in your face; and you not able to do a thing about it.
Next came swarms upon swarms of flies.
Then there was the plague that caused the livestock to be diseased. Poor animals!

What in the world is going on in Pharaoh’s mind? Was he really this stupid, or was he just stubborn? Who knows. Maybe a combination of the two.

The sixth of the ten plagues resulted in humans and animals being afflicted with boils all over their bodies.
Plague number seven: relentless thunder and hail the size of camel hoofs. Pharaoh’s stubbornness persisted.
Plague number eight: swarms of locusts. These locusts covered all the vegetation that hadn’t already been destroyed by the hail, and it was suddenly gone. Pharaoh was unmoved! “Let my people go, Pharaoh!” He still said, “No! Never!”
Plague number nine: darkness. Deep, pitch black darkness engulfed the Egyptians for three solid days. Sunrise was just as dark as midnight. No luminaries. Only darkness.
Finally, the tenth plague. Horrors! The writer of Exodus tells us that God ordered the firstborn of every Egyptian--from the most prominent to the servants, and this didn’t include the Hebrews--and every animal in the land to be stricken dead.

There have been numerous explanations of and responses to the idea that God brought such horrors on Egypt and the Egyptians just to punish stubborn Pharaoh. To make matters worse the Bible tells the story in such a way as to have the God of Exodus taking responsibility not only for the plagues, but also for keeping Pharaoh stubborn.
A leading British scientist, Professor Roger Wotton, who is a biologist at University College in London, proposed as recently as this past December that the plagues might have happened, but, if so, they were not acts of God; rather they were a series of natural disasters that demoralized the Egyptians, causing them to say that the God of the Hebrews was the winner.
Wotton believes that the crises occurred, but that they have been “embellished, ordered and described through the lens of religious mythology.” More of Professor Wotton’s words:

The “rivers of blood” could have been caused by heavy rainfall on baked soil, leading to sediment-rich water flowing into the Nile from tributaries where the underlying soil and rocks are red. Egyptians often spoke of the “red lands” surrounding the fertile, “black lands” they occupied. The plague of frogs could have been migrating frogs, or the sudden appearance of the froglike Spadefoot toads from hiding places in damp undersoil after a sudden rainfall.Similarly, the plague of lice could have been merely the sudden hatching of lice throughout Egypt after rain that followed unusually hot and dry weather. The description of swarms of flies match the behavior of dancing midges, which can sometimes be so dense that livestock have to be taken indoors to avoid asphyxiation, he says. Again, unusual weather conditions could have led them to the Nile.

Wotton dodges the issue of whether God was behind all of this and especially the death of first-born children and animals. He’s a biologist! He’s allowed to duck out on that one!
Only when the first-born children and animals lay dead did Pharaoh let the Hebrews go. The mere thought rips out our hearts even if the tale is fictional.

My rabbi is Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn, Senior Rabbi at Temple Sinai in New Orleans. Everyone should have a rabbi, and to those others who do, I say, “Mine is the best.”
Ed must one of the few rabbis who, along with his graduate rabbinical training, holds a degree from a Christian seminary. Yes, that’s what I said. Ed earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from a Methodist seminary, the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri.
For a couple of years, Ed was one of three panelists who regularly joined host, Chris Jansing, on an MSNBC program called “The Ethical Edge.” Panelists discussed and sometimes debated moral issues at the heart of key news stories. Televised nationally, the program attracted wide positive attention.
I first knew Ed as a preacher who submitted an occasional sermon to my journal, Pulpit Digest. Eventually, he became the only rabbi, as far as I recall, who ever served on the board of advisory editors.
Then, through a wonderful turn of events, we both found ourselves serving congregations in New Orleans. He got there before I did, and he’s still there. He may always be there since his congregation a few years ago offered him a lifetime contract. Think for a moment about how much a clergyperson must be loved and esteemed in order to be offered a LIFE contract! Some day I hope you’ll meet Ed, and I promise that in a very short time, say a weekend, you’ll know why Temple Sinai wants to hang onto him until he’s 100 or so and has to move to a home for elderly rabbis called something like Shalom Home.
Ed is a dear friend and, honestly, more than a friend. He really is my trusted confidant, one of the very, very, very few people in all the world with whom I can and do discuss anything. I trust his judgment and insights about relationships. I trust his views and understandings of leadership and congregational issues. I trust his perspectives on preaching. Beyond the gift of his treasured friendship, I have learned so much from Ed across the years.
The last time I saw him was February of ‘07 in New York where I was on my birthday/theatre/study pilgrimage. He and his wife were in New York for a couple of months on sabbatical (HINT!!!), and he took me out for Sunday brunch to celebrate my birthday. We had a great time catching up face to face, and before we left he embarrassed the pee-wadding out me by having the wait staff and our fellow brunchers join him in singing “Happy Birthday” to the immanent preacher, he told anyone listening, Dr. David Farmer. I waited a whole year before going back to New York, hoping that anyone in the restaurant that day would have completely forgotten me. Truthfully, of course, I was deeply flattered and touched and entertained by the event--though my face was red for the rest of the day.
Ed’s Temple and my Church, the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, were very close in proximity in Uptown New Orleans. During the five-year overlap of our ministries in that remarkable city, the congregations became closer in terms of knowledge of and involvement with each other; this relationship between the two congregations continues to this day.
Ed and I were able to get an organization going that we called the Uptown Interfaith Association. This group brought congregations of many faiths together for an annual joint Thanksgiving service and for other events of interest to the whole of New Orleans’s Uptown faith communities. It was thrilling, and the success of the effort rested on Ed’s magnanimity and forward-thinking ways.
I was a newbie, after all. St. Charles was my first full-time pastorate after I gave up being a professor for a while in response to the fundamentalist takeover of all Southern Baptist seminaries and mission agencies. I was heavily grieved when I went to New Orleans because of the theft of doctrinal diversity and progressive thought that had been a strong part of why I loved the Southern Baptists of my early life. In any case, Ed was something of a mentor to me.
Some of you know the absolutely true story of the Jewish/Christian wedding at which Ed and I co-officiated. The Jewish bride and the Protestant groom wanted to be married in the beautiful City Park, AT the Carousel, they said. Prepositions are so very important. When Ed and I arrived at the Park, we walked to the Carousel and found the set up for ceremony, not AT the Carousel, but ON the Carousel. We weren’t on the part that revolved, but just off of that.
As we took our places side by side, we heard a swooshing movement behind us. We were looking around to see what was happening to us when music started. It was Elvis sining, “We’re Goin’ to the Chapel, and We’re Gonna Get Married.” Before we were quite sure what was going on, we saw a sight too shocking for two clergypersons all robed up for a formal wedding. Here came the bride on one of the Merry-go-round horses with her father on the one behind here. There they were, going round and round, up and down, as Elvis sang his heart out on the Park’s loud speaker.
When the bride finally dismounted her steed, Ed and I were even more stunned. The father of the bride helped his daughter to her place in front of Ed and me. She was wearing a tight-fitting sequined dress, and there was a three-feet long plume growing out of her hair. She looked like a flapper, not a bride; and she was nearly beyond tipsy. Only in New Orleans, baby.
Ed’s a lot nicer than I am and much more adaptable. He just went right along in the spirit of the event as warm and cordial as ever. I was in shock. I could barely say my part of the service. I just kept staring at this couple in front of me. Ed had to elbow me a few times as we stood there to keep me from staring and forgetting my place.
As soon as it was over, I RAN to my car. I wanted to get out of that loony place as fast as I could. As I was getting in the car, I noticed that Ed was running after me. He told whoever was paying us that they had to pay on the spot, that sending a check wouldn’t work. Somehow the money was pooled together, and Ed handed me a hundred bucks saying, “You really earned this!”
Ed and I fell into the habit of a pulpit exchange. At least once a year, he invited me to preach at his Temple on Friday evening, and I’d invite him the following Sunday to preach at my Church. How wonderful it was to preach in a synagogue used to great preaching, and how wonderful it was to see Ed work his pulpit magic in the St Charles pulpit.
Ed is a really witty guy, and he tells jokes well. I vividly remember his first sermon at St. Charles in one of these pulpit exchanges. He told a joke about a physician, a world renowned ophthalmologist, whose treatment and care led to the restoration of someone’s sight. The patient was so grateful that she sent the doctor a very large but beautifully carved or sculpted human eye. The doctor, if I recall correctly, was most appreciative but remarked to someone, “I’m glad I’m not a proctologist!” Five minutes lapsed as we waited for my congregation to stop laughing.
The first time we did the pulpit exchange, Rabbi Cohn proposed that we conclude the services, first at his Temple and then at my Church, with the stirring benediction from the book of Numbers, chapter 6. He would speak a phrase in Hebrew, and I would follow with its English equivalent. It was beautiful like that, and closing our services, he at my place or I at his, with benedictions in just that manner became our hallmark.

The Lord bless you and keep you; God make God’s face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; God lift up God’s countenance upon you, and give you peace.

There was a Negro spiritual based on the biblical tale I related at the beginning of the sermon.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.

Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said,
Let my people go,
If not, I’ll smite your first-born dead,
Let my people go.

No more shall they in bondage toil,
Let my people go,
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil,
Let my people go.

Go down, Moses!
Way down in Egypt’s land.
Tell ol’ Pharaoh: Let my people go!

About this time of year, five years ago, Rabbi Cohn preached a Passover sermon at Temple Sinai in New Orleans entitled, “Let My People Grow.” Early in that moving and challenging sermon, Ed told his hearers:

A couple of nights ago, the Jewish people worldwide sat down to the Seder, re-enacting the events of some 3,300 years ago. From oldest to youngest, we gathered at table-side to recall those resounding words of Moses to Pharaoh: “Let my people go that they may serve their God.” The Passover message would remind us that freedom is never won by the easy road of mere escape. But, rather, freedom implies an active and combative struggle both for personal growth and for the realization of spiritual ideals. Perhaps, then, it is only after we have found ourselves that, like Moses, we can cease to be strangers in a strange land. Freedom from enslavement must, of necessity, begin deep down within each human breast.

“Freedom from enslavement must, of necessity, begin deep down within each human breast.”
Ed listed four sources of enslavement. First, he pointed that, sometimes, we are enslaved by circumstances. Second, many of us become enslaved by routine. Third, more than a few of us are enslaved by things. Fourth and finally, he said, that many of us are enslaved by ourselves.
Those who are enslaved by circumstances may have been confronted with the reality of the perfect job that finally falls through, or they may have or have had a poor home or family life. Ed also lists “an embittering loss, a personal betrayal, a disabling illness, a raw deal in life.”
One of the ways we become enslaved to routine is when we put off the full enjoyment of life until some other point out there somewhere when we have more time or more money or more friends. You name it. In the mean time, we keep our regular routines going, continuing to put off fully embracing life.
Being enslaved by things. That one is so obvious it doesn’t need much comment, does it? In Rabbi Cohn’s words: “Some of us are enslaved by things and their acquisition. We never have enough of riches or material treasure.”
He went on to preach about the fact that sometimes, in our weak times, we enslave ourselves. That hits frighteningly close to home, doesn’t it?
Especially in our context of political freedom, we have so much literal freedom that we many of us don’t mind losing a little, wasting a little. At best, most of us take our freedom for granted; we will be reminded of that again in November when we see how many of us didn’t bother to vote for President of the United States. Unimaginable. Unthinkable. But commonplace.
Carelessness with freedom leads some of us to enslave ourselves. Ed, as I’ve said, thinks this happens in our moments of weakness.
He also makes the memorable comment, as he gets ready to close his sermon, that one is not free simply because she or he is no longer a slave. The ancient Hebrews would repeatedly prove this to be true.
Out wandering in the desert in search of their so-called “Promised Land,” many of them began to whine and complain. They were critical of Moses for having encouraged them to follow him out of routine in which they were comfortable. Even though that Pharaoh had been growing increasingly strict with them, they had food to eat and shelter over their heads. “By the way, did anyone notice,” they gossiped, that the Pharaoh became more strict with us AFTER Moses and Aaron started bugging him? That mess back in Egypt and this mess we’re in here and now are both the faults of Moses. Why didn’t he just leave well enough alone?”
How do we enslave ourselves? Let us count the ways!
"The enslaving of the other," said an existentialist philosopher by the name of Nikolai Berdyaev, "is also the enslaving of the self." This is quite evident when we ponder it just for a moment.
Addictions obviously enslave us--both those addictions that others can see in us when they observe us and those addictions that are known only to us in the privacy of our minds and imaginations. I am not, and I wouldn’t for a second, put down an addict--regardless of her or his addiction. We know now that addictive behavior patterns can be outgrowths of illness. At the same time, I have to say that, in honesty, most of us know when we are developing addictive connections to certain substances or behaviors, and if we won’t pull ourselves away from the circumstances in which those behaviors tend to occur then we are inviting the addiction.
Here’s something else. Self-pity can become the basis for self-enslavement. I think there are some bad turns life forces on us from time to time, and we’re due some self-pity when those happen. There are those, though, who make self-pity a way of life. It’s tragic in a way, but also it’s something we don’t want to hear all the time unless, of course, someone is being honest about how painful some experience was and continues to be. In other words, I think we’re all entitled to a measure of self-pity when life has dealt us a bad hand; it doesn’t matter what others may think of us or how we’re coping. If we are going to move on, however, we can’t let the self-pity overtake us. Some of you have had such sad and tragic times in your life that if you’d let self-pity rule you, you’d never have gotten out of bed.
Tennessee Williams’s play, “Suddenly Last Summer,” was made into a movie in the very late 1950’s starring Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Mercedes McCambridge. It’s a very powerful film, disturbing in ways, just as Williams wanted it, and there are a few themes to keep up with--not just one. Ms. Hepburn played the mother whose son had tragically died “suddenly last summer.” She was trapped in her self-pity; she had enslaved herself in that self-pity. In her case, this led to a very destructive set of behaviors affecting herself and others.
Karen Roekard speaks powerfully to my ear:

The Hebrew name for the ancient Egypt was Mitzrayim; the word Mitzrayim comes from a root word with a meaning, “the narrow place.” I interpreted this to mean that in this [present] generation...from within my evolving consciousness, it is my gift to be able to understand Mitzrayim and the sensibility of slavery by looking into the “right now” of my life and seeing, feeling, and knowing the ways in which I enslave myself, the ways in which I keep myself in narrow places.

This is brilliantly insightful.

The antidote to self-enslavement is personal growth as Ed makes clear early on in his sermon. The challenge for us, then, is to risk personal growth--an uneasy change of how and when and where we do what we do in our lives. “Let my people go,” God says. And God adds, “Let my people GROW.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's Free, But It Costs Too Much

Dr. John Killinger

Are you fulfilled as a person? Are you more than just content with the way life goes for you?
If so, you’ve realized or are realizing some of those great goals that so many people only ponder.

You’re happy with who you are; self-satisfaction takes us a long, long way toward personal fulfillment.

You have a meaningful energy-giving connection to a spiritual center.

You have found that other person in the world who is your true soul-mate, and she or he knows it and feels the same way about you!

You have a few people in the world whom you know to be your true friends; I doubt that many of us have a truck load of those because they are rare--those people who know us and love us no matter what and who have been there and who will be there with us and for us in the best of times and the worst of times; if there is a handful or only one we know that we are wildly blessed.

You’ve been able to travel to some places, if you desire to travel of course, that many others only dream of. You’ve seen with your own eyes wonders of the world and your fellow human beings living in ways that seemed exotic to you.

You achieved or are in the process of achieving all you ever hoped for educationally and/or professionally.

You are able to live, and you have chosen to live, by your own standards. You walk to the beat of your own drummer, and you feel no obligation whatsoever to adopt someone else’s values just to make her or him happy.

You know you’ve done your best to make the world a better place, and you’re leaving the world, as best you are or have been able, to the next generation a little better off, at least, than it would have been without you. You’re leaving no trash for the next generations to have to clean up or choke on. You tirelessly cry out for and work for peace. You’ve fed a hungry person or two.

You’ve loved at least one person no one else has loved.

You’ve sacrificed along the way for the well-being of those whom you know and love and for a few whose names you never knew but whose struggles ripped your heart out.

You’ve wrestled with at least one demon and beat him.

When you put your head on your pillow at the end of the day, you’re at peace with how you’ve invested your time that day and your life, all things considered, up to that moment.

If these describe you, chances are, you are personally fulfilled. In the words of the baseball great, Satchel Paige, who pitched his last game for the Kansas City Athletics with three shutout innings when he was sixty years old, you’re able to: “Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like no one is watching.”
I’m not the world’s greatest Country Music fan, except for the music of Dr. Dolly Parton who was awarded an honorary doctorate by my alma mater, but now and then I stumble upon a song that won’t leave me like one of those Lee Ann Womack sings:

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean taking chances but they’re worth taking
Lovin’ might be a mistake but it’s worth making
Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter
When you come close to selling out reconsider
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

I hope you still feel small when you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith the fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. has been credited with saying, “A few can touch the magic string, and noisy fame is proud to win them: Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them!” There is no way to be personally fulfilled if that’s the case for any of us.
Chances are, most people are not fulfilled; maybe some of us are still working on being fulfilled. How do we get there?
Dr. John Killinger whose sermon, “The Real Way to Personal Fulfillment,” to which I’m responding to today connects the search for personal fulfillment to an interesting story from Jesus’ life. I will get around to sharing Dr. Killinger’s views later in the sermon; these initial comments about the story grow out of my own thoughts.
A rich man is involved in the episode. The Gospel of Mark tells us that as Jesus was getting started on a journey, a rich man ran up to him, knelt before him, and asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
There are a few surprising details to take note of before we get to the heart of the story, which is Jesus’ unsettling advice. First, most people who took an interest in Jesus’ teachings were anything but rich. Yes, there were a few rich people connected to Jesus, but not many. Because Jesus didn’t preach materialism, not many wealthy folks took an interest in what he had to say. Also, since clearly Jesus spent most of his time with poor people and those with physical and emotional health concerns or crises, it’s fair to say that not as many rich people even knew about Jesus, much less about what he said.
This man was rich, though, and, somehow, he had heard about Jesus and some teachings regarding eternal life that he did not know much about.
Second, we have a Jewish man asking about eternal life. If all that is meant here by “eternal life” is the length of life in the next realm then we know that the man was not satisfied with the perspective of the Sadducees in Jesus’ day, the religio-political party within Judaism that denied a resurrection of the dead to live in heavenly places. Many of the rich and privileged, a very small percentage of people in Jesus’ day, were Sadducees as opposed to Pharisees or Zealots, for example. It’s only a guess, of course, but we would not be off of solid ground if we were to speculate that the man was himself a Sadducee who had been intrigued with the notion of life in the world to come. He is so interested that he comes to an “alternative rabbi,” Jesus from Nazareth.
Third, the man is rich, and he probably had servants bowing before him on a daily basis, but he himself didn’t do much bowing and certainly no scraping. Even so, here he kneels before Jesus. When’s the last time you went to your carpenter for theological advice and knelt before him (or her!) while you asked? Even if your carpenter is a part-time preacher and Bible study leader, would you kneel before him to be able to ask for a point of doctrinal clarification?
Fourth, the unnamed rich man calls Jesus, “Good Teacher” or “Good Rabbi,” and Jesus sort of rebuffs him for it. Jesus asks the man, “Why do you call me good?” Before the man can answer, Jesus explains why he asked, “God alone is good.” I ask those who carry on with a glib “Jesus was God” theology to take note of the many indications we have throughout the New Testament that Jesus saw himself as the Child of Humanity and not as God--God’s child, yes; God, no.
There’s a psalm that Jesus may have had in mind. One of the psalmists is praying when she or he says to God, “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.”
In any case, I’m guessing this was Jesus’ way of saying that some things are up to God alone; this is similar to the position Jesus would take on issues about the end of time or the end of this world. Only God knows. The angels don’t know. The Child of Humanity doesn’t know. God knows, and only God knows.
Having said that, Jesus will go on to give the rich man his view on the matter, which Jesus regarded, by the way, as a personal opinion--not sacred, holy, infallible words to be canonized. Jesus did “just talk” sometimes, you know. In any case, what he says to the man is very earthly oriented, if you will--not “heavenly,” not pious-sounding, not “spiritual.” This is why John Killinger connects the story to a matter of personal fulfillment and not just life in the great beyond.

John Killinger is a remarkable person, and, by the way, so is his wife, Anne. Many of you have met them since during my second year here, I think it was, he was our guest lecturer at Silverside in much the same way that Bob Miller will be this fall. John and Ann came and spent the weekend with us. He preached, and he lectured; and he shared his brilliance and good will with us.
In my doctoral program, after one’s three-member committee of instruction had approved a dissertation, someone outside the seminary in the field also had to read it and approve it. This and two seminars that had to be taken in an institution outside the seminary helped to ensure that we were not cranking out little Southern Seminary robots shaped only by some prevailing “in house” perspective or mentality.
John Killinger was my outside reader. I had long admired him--from the time I read my first Killinger book in college to my learning of his contributions to the field of preaching when he was Professor of Preaching at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. I felt so fortunate that he accepted the invitation to be my reader, and I owe him a lot since he approved my efforts and put the last signature on the papers that made my dissertation acceptable for the homiletical world.
John holds two doctoral degrees--one in homiletics from Princeton and one in American literature from the University of Kentucky. The last I knew, he had written sixty-five books including some novels about a female Jesus figure named Jessie. Maybe his most eye-catching book title in recent years has been God, the Devil, and Harry Potter.
He left Vanderbilt Divinity School after fifteen years as Professor of Preaching to get back in the trenches, as it were. Though a Southern Baptist by background, John became pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. He went there in part, and you may not read this in the history books, because he wanted to contend first hand with Jerry Falwell whose church and university domain was there in Lynchburg.
Dr. Al Mohler, who went from being a somewhat moderate seminary student in my era to turning fundamentalist just in time to nab the prominent and big-paying jobs available, as progressive theology was first falling into disfavor, is now the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote this about one of John’s books:

...Killinger recounts a lunch conversation with Jerry Falwell, Pastor of Lynchburg’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. One can only imagine the fireworks which must have resulted from the encounter between Falwell and Killinger during the years they served prominent pulpits in the same city. During their lunch conversation, Falwell warned of the slippery slope toward doctrinal compromise that follows the denial of biblical authority. At the end of Ten Things I Learned Wrong From a Conservative Church, Killinger acknowledges that Jerry Falwell was right. “Once we are able to say out loud that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God--that its inspiration is not really different from that of the Bhagavad-Gita or Thoreau’s “Walden” or Maya Angelou’s poems--then a great number of conservative and fundamentalist idols begin to topple.”  Furthermore, Killinger recounts that without an affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture, it is “a simple step to denying that Jesus is the only way to God, or that he really had to die for our sins.”

Precisely! And thank you, John!
Dr. John Killinger left Lynchburg and became pastor of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. I hope I have the chronology correct. Next, he was Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. From there he started dabbling with semiretirement, and he became pastor of the Little Stone Church on Mackanac Island in Michigan. He served there for years through the fall of 2003, I believe, being in residence about half a year every year--maybe not quite. The church is only open during the height of tourism.
This preacher, one of our great preachers, preached to about 150 people per Sunday--the wealthy, the influential, and other vacationers. He was and is much loved.
I am and have been enthused about John’s sermons for many reasons--and I edited many of them across the years when I was editor of Pulpit Digest while he was one of our contributing editors. I should say I was editor of that journal while he was a a contributor. If I say, “I edited,” you get the impression that I had to make corrections and improvements. There were no corrections to be made, and there are no ways to improve upon the finest of final products, which all of his sermon manuscripts were.
Naturally, they read like fine literature, and, by the way, they are. Beyond that, at the top of my list of why I love Killinger sermons, I think, is his ability to illustrate with his wide knowledge of literature. I asked John in a taped interview once if it were the illustrations from literature that caused folks to love his sermons, and he shocked me by saying something like, “No. Not at all. The best illustrations are often those from personal experience and struggle. People in the pews like to hear how the preacher has observed real life and faith issues in everyday experiences to which they can relate.” Those are highly moving indeed, and maybe that is what most people like about his sermons, but I am still in awe of someone as well read as he who often brings a reference from literature, just the right reference, into a sermon.
One can learn a great deal about the best of literature by reading John’s sermons and taking his lead on deciding which piece to read next. For example, I had never heard of Lorraine Hansberry much less her play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” until I read a snippet from it in one of John’s sermons. I’ll never forget his recounting of Hansberry’s story and Mama’s slapping her daughter’s, Beneatha’s, face for coming close to denying the existence of God and then demanding of Beneatha, “Now, you say after me: In my mother’s house there is still God.”
Today, John is Executive Minister and Theologian at New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church where he shares preaching opportunities with the Senior Minister in the very pulpit made famous by Norman Vincent Peale. What a great gift to preaching John Killinger is.
John is famous for his sermons and his prayers. Because of that, the prayer in our gathering today will come from one of John’s published volumes of prayers. I had the privilege of reviewing one of those volumes, Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise, and when the book was released I saw that a blurb from what I had written appeared on the back cover, describing and promoting the book; that had deeply moved me.
The sermon of his to which I’m responding today is entitled, “The Real Way to Personal Fulfillment.” He originally preached this sermon on March 9, 1997, on television, on a show called “30 Good Minutes,” which is aired by Chicago’s public broadcasting station and shared in syndication with several other stations around the country. John was the guest preacher on that program once a year or so for several years.
In response to the sermon he preached on that broadcast, John was interviewed, and this is what he said in regard to what had motivated him, in part at least, to preach on the particular subject of personal fulfillment:

Our society just happens to be in this great cultural transition, and in a time like that the old verities have collapsed. Everything is sort of up for grabs again, and a lot of people, I think, in that kind of transition time are very much concerned about what will make them happy. They focus on what will fulfill them, despite what's happening to the world around them, instead of giving themselves to the world as people did so wonderfully back under John Kennedy, let’s say, in the Peace Corps, and things like that. I think people think they’ve got to store up something for themselves. I notice young people so many times are so concerned about their pensions, and they haven’t even gotten to the age where they ought to be thinking about pensions yet, but they’re worried about all the peripheral things that are going to come to them. I just hate to see them lose life by measuring it out as Eliot said, “in coffee spoons” that way instead of really seizing the great adventures and doing the things that will promote joy and goodness for everybody and not just for themselves.

So John believes that the rich man from our reflective reading in Mark 10 today was asking Jesus about more than simply how he could live forever in the next realm of existence, and he is not the only scholar to have noticed that “eternal life” as many who use the term in Christian scripture has both a quantitative as well as a qualitative dimension. Living forever wouldn’t mean very much if mere existence were all one claimed to be interested in. Certain strands of Jewish thought, while having no sense of heaven, had long affirmed an abode of the dead where shadows or shades of the souls of all humans continued on in Sheol with that kind of life after this earthly life ended. The Greeks had a similar view with Hades being the abode of the dead for good folk and bad folk; everyone was admitted, but so what? The question became, who could get excited about that? The rich man wasn’t concerned about living forever in terms of time; he probably already suspected that his soul would live forever in the abode of the dead.
My beloved college Greek professor, L. Dan Taylor, was the first to alert me to this reality. Professor Taylor said eternal life in Christian scripture was an effort to talk about God’s kind of life. What we struggling human beings want is something more than we can manufacture for ourselves; we want God’s kind of life. It has an eternal component to it because God is eternal, but it’s about so much more than time.
What the rich man wanted to know, as John Killinger’s keen literary and theological eye caught, was, “How do I find real life?” This is how John described the man, his quest, and his question:

Apparently he had been looking all his life for personal fulfillment. Since childhood, he had striven for perfection. He had done it the only way a good Jew knew how, by obeying the law. This took a lot of perseverance, because by his day the law had become extremely complicated. But even though he felt that he had mastered the finer points of the law, he wasn't satisfied. Something was compelling him to go farther. When he learned about Jesus and the excitement Jesus was generating everywhere he went, he said, “Aha! This rabbi obviously knows something about achieving the good life that I haven’t found. I will go to him and see what I can discover that will make me a better person.”

Killinger continues:

Maybe this is why it is so easy to understand the man, and to sympathize with him. We too want to know that we haven’t neglected anything that would improve our situations, don’t we? Like him, we’re always looking for something to give us an edge, something that will make us more sensitive, or more successful, or more complete.

Killinger, in his sermon, “The Real Way to Personal Fulfillment,” points out that Jesus doesn’t give the man the stock answer of conservative Christians in our day. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” I’ve never known too many people who actually knew what that meant--to believe on or in Jesus; Jesus would have had absolutely no clue what such an admonition or formula meant. I’ve known tons of folks, though, who talked about it; most of them claiming to have done so, believing on or in Jesus, and thus “getting saved.”
From all indications, what the man believed was a non-issue though, certainly, we have to be honest and say that it was evident that Jesus and the rich man affirmed that God is real. He was surely expecting to hear from Jesus something that today we might term “spiritual.” Jesus could have said, “You have to beef up that prayer life of yours.” or, “Come on, come on, come on; you’re going to have to stop playing hooky from synagogue,” or, “Since when were reading and reciting Torah so low on your list of priorities?” Or, best case scenario, Jesus could have said what would have been music to the man’s ears: “You’ve already earned it. You’ve kept all the laws admirably; plus you’re a Jew, one of God’s chosen people. You’re a shoe in for a heavenly reward.”
Jesus didn’t say any of these things. What he did say sounded something more like this: “Well, pal, your Jewishness won’t get you in, won’t guarantee you God’s favoritism in the next world any more than in this one; and those good deeds of yours are nice and admirable, but good deeds alone won’t get you very far. The truth is, expecting God to share God’s kind of life with you, all because you keep a bunch of rules is kind of shallow, not to mention off target.”
Jesus said, “Here’s the thing. If you want to share God’s kind of life in this world and the next then you’re going to have to start living as if what God cares about matters more than what you, naturally, care about. In your case, you need to get rid of your riches. I’ll bet you care more about your bank account than you care about God. I’ll bet you care more about your possessions, what you own, than you care about people God loves with intensity, the poor. Tell you what, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor; then surely you will have done all that can be done to prove one’s allegiance to God.”
The rich man was speechless. Speechless, I’m telling you. The story doesn’t end on a happy or a promising note. We get the hint that the man had no intention of doing what Jesus had suggested he must do. He wanted to go back to the rules keeping thing that could keep him on track as he checked off all the laws he’d kept diligently day by day. Jesus said, “Nah. If you’re really all that concerned about being in God’s will and sharing God’s kind of life then do the one thing we know for sure God would do if God had material possessions at God’s disposal. God would sell everything God had and then take the proceeds and give every dinarius to the poorest of the poor. Run over to your CPA’s office and arrange for the anonymous transfer of all the money you take in when you sell your house, your brand-spanking new camel, your furniture, your clothing, and don’t forget those talents and bonds.”
“The scandal of our faith,” preached John Killinger, “is that it costs too much. It’s free, but it costs too much. So we turn away sadly, like this man in our text and go back to our toys and programs and self-improvement gimmicks.”
Mark ends the story in a telling way. He doesn’t have to tell us the man didn’t follow through; we sort of get that. What Mark does make a point to tell is that the man went away very sad because he was very rich. He, no doubt, was saying to himself, “Well, no one can prove an afterlife anyway. I’ll just go back to the way things were. If there’s eternal life, fine; if not, fine too.”
This is Killinger’s paraphrase of what Jesus said to the man:

“Stop worrying about all the rules and regulations....Stop fiddling with the minor adjustments to your character. Do something really basic with your life. Sell all the stuff that makes you feel important and successful and come follow me.” Real self-transcendence, in other words, doesn’t come from paying so much attention to the self. It comes from giving up the self. You don’t fulfill yourself by adding a new discipline to your life or achieving something you’ve never achieved before: by studying underwater photography or taking balloon rides over the Rockies or learning to dance the Macarena. You do it by taking a right turn with the self, by forgetting yourself for a change and making a commitment to someone or something a lot bigger than you’ll ever be by yourself.

There’s nothing in the world wrong with self-improvement, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it. There IS, however, something very wrong with self-preoccupation to the point that I alone matter. I can’t be fulfilled if all I do is think of me. I can’t be fulfilled if my selfishness drives to hoard what I have rather than sharing it with those who have no roof over their heads and whose stomachs growl them to sleep every night of their lives. I can’t be fulfilled, and I certainly can’t grasp God’s kind of life if all that matters to me is me.
Killinger’s words close for us:

We would all like to be successful and fulfilled as persons; it is one of the dreams with which our culture imbues us. But when we listen to Jesus, we realize that success and fulfillment don't really come the way we often expect them to. They aren’t the direct result of anything we can do to attain them. Instead, they’re a gift from God, and they simply happen when we are doing the right things with our lives.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Making Friends with Secularism

Professor David G. Buttrick


The word, “secularism,” is about 160 years old. It was coined by George Jacob Holyoake, and he meant by the word “a form of opinion [that] concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.” He added to the bare-bones definition:

Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life — which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible — which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service.

Secularism does not, inherently or of necessity, deny any religious claims, but it does separate the religious realm from the non-religious realm in order to try to arrive at core truths unembellished or uncolored by abstractions such as faith. Holyoake was not one of those secularists who affirmed much that was passed along by organized religion. One other quote from him: “Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable.”
Many secularists have no argument with religion per se, but they don’t think that religious persons or institutions should be in any way privileged in whatever society they exist. Speaking as a professional “religionist” (is that a word?), I’m in full agreement with that much of secularism. Especially in a society that purports to espouse “separation of church and state,” this is exactly as it should be.
Pragmatically speaking, there are too many variations of any one religion--think of Christianity as an example--for “religion” to be permitted to rule or dominate a society. If this really were a so-called “Christian nation,” which is an impossibility, but if it were...which brand of Christianity would take charge of running the country?
There are many fewer principles to which we need to agree to have the government influenced by secularism. Let’s say as a nation we agree on the principle of democracy; admittedly, there are various perspectives as to what democracy entails, but fundamentally we have a good idea of the broad strokes of what democracy is.
If religion is to take the lead, if we were to limit the options to theism or monotheism, we’re in trouble. Even the religious types can’t begin to agree on who or what God is and, after that, how a society operates when it is trying to honor God. The very best systems are those that give religious types the freedom to hold their religious thoughts without forcing them on others including, or maybe especially, on those who prefer to have no connection to religion whatsoever.
Since the first century, shortly after the break of the Jesus Movement from Judaism, there have been Christians who have enjoyed, or at least magnified, the concept of martyrdom--literally and figuratively. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi, for example, is written against the backdrop of a martyrdom cult. German New Testament scholar, Ernst Lohmeyer, is the person known to me who has most clearly articulated this context. The Philippians had some in their number who had so glorified the martyrs that they themselves longed to be martyrs and, furthermore, did everything they could to get a death sentence from Rome on the basis of their commitment to the teachings of Jesus.
To a much lesser degree, there have been and there are Christians who enjoy capitalizing on the notion that secularists are persecuting them by trying to limit their freedom to express themselves as they see fit, and when anyone differs with them or takes issue with them the claim is made that they are being persecuted. These kinds of Christians love to exaggerate their presumed enemies, and they attempt to pull away from the larger society to such an extent that they become cult-like; for fun, they demonize the secular society in which they exist. Such separatist “Christians,” in U.S. American society at least, seem to have forgotten or ignored the fact that military women and men, in service to a secular country, have put their lives on the line and in all too many cases lost their lives specifically to protect the religious freedoms that they cry are being encroached upon.
Dr. Stanley Hauerwas and Dr. Will Willimon coauthored a book entitled Resident Aliens. The primary purpose of the book was to challenge the branch of Christianity that is so sold out to growth that it completely accommodates itself to American secular society; in other words, the church is just one more big business. There isn’t anything inherently distinctive about the church; it even adopts the values of the nation over the radical and hard-to-swallow teachings of Jesus when there are conflicts. Jesus is turned into a prosperity-seeking modern American. As the character, Roger Debris, says in “The Producers”: “It’s enough to make you heave!”
In many quarters, the book was and remains highly regarded, but not everyone liked it as we would expect. I saw no wholesale condemnation of the book, but I did hear a few critics who believed that Hauerwas and Willimon, both of Duke University Divinity School at the time, went overboard in portraying Christianity as a “colony” in the midst of the larger, essentially evil, society. In this case, the larger society is “secular,” and only Christians (along with some other religions, I suppose) are “sacred” or “godly.”
OK, so it’s one thing to call the church on its tendency to accommodate the values of a society, but it’s something else entirely to vilify the non-Christian or the non-religious sector of which Christian churches are, of necessity, a part. This leads, among other things, to martyrdom paranoia. After all, the Gospel of John’s Jesus did say:

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you (John 15:18-19 NRSV).

This same Jesus, at least in someone’s remembering, also said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”
And the Apostle Paul did say: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2 NRSV). Paul also said, however, in the first next section of the letter to the Christians to Rome that God puts all secular leaders in authority, and they should, therefore, be obeyed and respected.
In Harvey Cox’s book, The Secular City, he argued that secularism can’t always be a bad thing. He gave two reasons that secularism can be a good thing: “It prevents powerful religions from acting on their theocratic pretensions. It allows people to choose among a wider range of worldviews.” Cox went on to say:

God can be just as present in the secular as in the religious realms of life, and we unduly cramp the divine presence by confining it to some specially delineated spiritual or ecclesial sector. This idea has two implications. First, it suggests that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. God came into this world, and that is where we belong as well. But second, it also means that not all that is “spiritual” is good for the spirit (Cox’s paraphrase of parts of his book).

Harry Emerson Fosdick preached one of his most memorable sermons under the title, “The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable.” This assertion can potentially offend people on both sides of the argument, which--more than likely--was Fosdick’s intent.

By this point in my present sermon series, I have come on my list to preachers whom I know personally, and so for the rest of the series, which runs through mid-May, I am preaching in response to sermons by preachers with whom I am connected. At the top of this particular list is our preacher for today, David Buttrick. To most of his friends and almost all of his students he is, simply, “Buttrick.”

Buttrick presently holds the title, the Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics Emeritus, at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. I have known David since the cold January of 1982, and I’m delighted that I am preaching about a sermon of his on the Sunday closest to my fortieth anniversary in the preaching ministry--which, in fact, is tomorrow. I preached my first sermon, as I told you a few weeks ago, when I was a mere lad of 14 years.
Having made a huge splash in the Presbyterian denomination as a pastor, as a preacher, as a preaching professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and as a denominational preaching and worship guru, the Roman Catholics nabbed him at a time when much Roman Catholic preaching was rather widely regarded as humdrum if not over simplistic or even a waste of time. They brought Buttrick to the St. Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Indiana; it’s about fifty miles east of Evansville.
Buttrick’s popularity as a professor of preaching spread all over the region, and soon there were students wanting to study with him badly enough to make the drive to St. Meinrad from
Cincinnati, Lexington, and Louisville, among other cities at some distance from Buttrick’s classroom. It was not unusual for students to drive an hour or two or more one-way several times a week to study with him.
I had just completed my first semester of doctoral work when I heard from friends that Buttrick was teaching a January term course. Doctoral students were officially required to be in residence studying during Januarys, but no formal seminars were offered so we were able to swing it. Several of us jumped at the chance and arranged to car pool with each other to make the sixty-mile, hour-plus trek to St. Meinrad.
The course professor Buttrick offered that January carried a captivating title, “New Testament Rhetoric and Homiletic Theory.” I knew I was intrigued; I had no idea the course would change my life, but it certainly did.
Buttrick was not a thing in the world like any of the seminary professors with whom I’d studied at Southern Seminary. For one thing, he smoked as he taught; sometimes it was hard to see the blackboard for the smoke in the classroom. For another thing, if he were agitated sufficiently by some kind of bad preaching to which he was making reference in the lecture, he might toss in a “damn” here and there. My friends and I loved his candor, but except for one rowdy pastoral care professor no one at Southern would use such language in the classroom. It was, well, real and refreshing.
I’d had some good preaching professors at Southern Seminary and had been fortunate enough to have been accepted by James W. Cox to study, with him, preaching at the doctoral level. Dr. Cox was and is one of the most widely respected historians of preaching in the world. Even so, Buttrick was different. His passion for good preaching was more evident. He demanded it of himself and of his students. Buttrick also engaged the biblical texts with fervor and freshness.
I was captivated on the first day of class, and I remain captivated by him still today. David Buttrick is the greatest theoretician of preaching of the twentieth and the twentieth-first centuries. Dr. Cox, my major professor, used to say of Buttrick’s peaching theory, “He has taken traditional homitletics, shaken it up, and put it back down; only now it sits sideways on a surface, never flat again.”
If you’re old enough, you probably knew of the work and influence of David’s father, George Arthur Buttrick. The elder Buttrick was a Brit who found his way to the states and served here as pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City and then Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. Though George Buttrick was widely published, it may have been his books on prayer and the parables of Jesus for which most laypersons outside his congregations knew him.
David’s approach to preaching is substantially different from his father’s way of peaching. He has become famous for his establishment of organizing sermons according to “moves” rather than points. While I have been highly and positively influenced by Buttrick’s moves theory, I do not organize every sermon in that manner and am not, ironically, using it today.
After years of tantalizing his preaching students with his lectures on the moves theory, his homiletical tome came out in March of 1987. That was five years after having studied with David, and, by the time the book came out, I was pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and editor of the journal, Pulpit Digest. Buttrick had since been lured away from St. Meinrad by Vanderbilt Divinity School so I worked a trip home to see my family in Knoxville into an opportunity to get to Nashville to interview David in person about his book, which was big, big news in the world of preaching.
On that trip, I learned how David and his wife, Betty, sort of adopted a host of David’s present and former students as a way of life. I had my sons, Jarrett and Carson, with me in Nashville, and instead of leaving them with friends, the Buttricks insisted that we all come to their home for the interview. The interview began over the dining table where Betty had ordered pizza to suit the appetites of a five year old and a three year old. The Buttricks’ huge Newfoundland, Emily, joined us for the meal, and then Betty and Emily took Jarrett and Carson away to play while David and I talked shop. I think that was the first moment I realized that David was my friend as well as my mentor and that, in his mind, to cease paying tuition did not mean the end of his relationship with students.
The interview was exciting as well as educational. I can’t remember if it were Betty or David who said there was something in the book to offend everyone all across the theological spectrum.
Buttrick has written widely otherwise, and he’s in constant demand as a lecturer and as a preacher. A few of his book titles: Speaking Jesus, Speaking Conflict, Speaking Parables, A Captive Voice, The Mystery and the Passion, Preaching the New and the Now.
Through the years, I’ve consulted with him numerous times. He came as a guest preacher to both of my congregations before Silverside, the one in New Orleans and the one in Baltimore. He has tried several times to help me land teaching jobs at high-cotton schools, but every time my degrees from a Southern Baptist School have worked against me. He was a reference to the Pastor Search Committee of this congregation, I believe, when it was trying to decide whether to take a risk with a former Southern Baptist in the pulpit. If you’re unhappy with the call extended to me almost eight years ago, I can get you Buttrick’s email address!
Sometimes, I worry that when I stress as much as I do Buttrick’s amazing gifts as a theoretician of preaching that I seem to be minimizing his gifts as a practitioner of preaching. This is not my intent at all for, indeed, Buttrick is one of the great preachers of our time.
I was stirred and challenged and inspired time and time again when I heard him preach and when I read his sermons for publication during the years he was a contributing editor to Pulpit Digest. My oh my oh my! How can one sufficiently thank a teacher and a mentor and a friend?

On October 15, 1995, David Buttrick was the guest preacher for the morning worship service at Duke University Chapel. He chose to title his sermon, “A Sermon at Duke University.” Buttrick doesn’t go in for catchy sermon titles--as you can tell.
Because of the position he took on the subject of secularism, some hearers took his sermon to be a rebuttal to what Hauerwas and Willimon, both members of the Duke faculty that time, had said in their book, Resident Aliens. Maybe it was; maybe it wasn’t. If it was, that was pretty gutsy huh? I’ve never asked him if that was his intent, but, again, I simply point out to you that more than a few hearers of the sermon said it took significant issue with the key images and points in the book by the two Duke faculty members.
Buttrick’s sermon text is a passage from the prophet Jeremiah admonishing Hebrew exiles ripped from their homes and lands by the Babylonian Emperor, Nebuchadnezzar, to keep on living anyway. Jeremiah was one of the few left in Jerusalem and not deported. He writes from Jerusalem encouraging his people in exile to live as well as they can, as fully as they can, while they’re in exile--not to let the context in which they are living keep them from doing whatever they’d do if they weren’t in exile. Build houses, plant gardens, get married, have kids. As Buttrick summarized Jeremiah’s words to the exiles: “Look, even in exile we are in God’s creation--a world filled with good things for human pleasure....[W]e live in God’s good creation, human beings with human beings on earth together.”
He raises an objection to separationism: “We talk of the secular world as if it rose up separate from God.” God is not in one part of the world and absent from the other part of the world. God does not pick out which parts of the world God will visit and which parts God will ignore. As Buttrick preached it, “...the secular world is still God’s world, and incidentally a world God loves!”
Having made it clear that secularism isn’t all bad and that persons of faith can’t abandon that part of the world, Buttrick presses on prophetically: “Secularism has spread, emptying churches all over Europe and now here in America....The danger now is that Christians may clutch their Bibles and retreat into a safe, sweet, sheltered churchiness....We cannot withdraw into our churches and pull the covers of faith over our heads.”
What in the world are we supposed to do about it, then? “...[W]e are to be active in the worldly world working for the common good....[W]e must speak the word of God to the world, the secular world in which we live....Every pagan place is still the Kingdom [of God] and every moment a usefulness to neighbors.”
One of Buttrick’s several stunning illustrations, one that stays in my consciousness, is this one, urging us to stay in the world in order to have an impact on it: “Speak to Congress--an irony: think of a hundred rich senators trying to legislate morality for the welfare poor. A double irony: think of churches saying nothing about it!”
Can you think of any way, any way at all, that Jesus’ ministry can be construed as separated from the nitty gritty of the secular context in which he lived and worked? I’ve wracked my brain, and I can’t come with anything that could be taken as separationism in the teachings of Jesus. John the Baptist, yes. Jesus, no. Jesus’ cousin, John, did physically separate himself from most of rest of the people of his time; society was so evil or so hued by evil that he felt the need to separate himself from it. He lived as something of a hermit. But not Jesus.
Jesus was right in the middle of everything, and he ended up getting criticized because he was way too secular to suit many of his critics. He hung out with his society’s “undesirables.” The holier-than-thou’s of his day slammed him for hobnobbing with “publicans and sinners.” Of course, “sinner” is a very generalized term often used to refer to anyone regarded by the one using the term as unfit morally. “Publican” was a synonym for tax collector or tax gatherer. Jesus had a publican, a tax collector, in his inner circle of men; Matthew was his name. On at least one occasion, Jesus dined in the home of a publican named Zacchaeus.
Jesus was criticized for too much partying accompanied by wine-bibbing. For that matter, some folks also said that Jesus really liked to chow down at the parties he shouldn’t have been attending in the first place. If he had stayed locked up at home or at Temple like a good Pharisee, such things would never have happened! The anti-secular attitude was probably one of the very reasons that Jesus had resigned from Phariseeism.
Jesus kept company with people from whom evil spirits had been exorcised. Yes, they were well, but they had been possessed, and we all know that the only way they could have been possessed was due to God’s disfavor. Once-tainted, always tainted; you know.
Jesus rubbed elbows with the ill and ailing. There was a similar notion about the physically ill as with the demon possessed. Not only were they unclean, but also they were ill by God’s design meaning they’d done something to bring God’s condemnation upon them. Jesus walked up and stood face to face with lepers whom most others including the family members of the lepers would have nothing to do with. He healed them. He also healed non-Jews including a Gentile woman's daughter and a Roman Centurion’s lover. Scandals. Scandals, I tell you. The gossips and the naysayers didn’t deter Jesus one little bit, though.
Jesus showed compassion for fallen women. The ancient Hebrew laws were so strict with regard to marital purity, even though the religion approved of and encouraged polygamy, that the law directed those who found a woman and a man committing adultery to take them out and stone them to death. Practically speaking, when this law was applied, the guilty man was rarely found; the woman would have been punished even though it’s impossible to commit adultery alone.
Some scholars say the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John’s Gospel doesn’t belong there and was slipped in a long time after the Gospel was supposedly finished. That is probably true, but I still think it shows us the nature of Jesus with struggling people.
Jesus challenged any of the men already picking up their stones to finish her off to go ahead and throw if any one of them had never made a moral misjudgment. They walked away grumbling, not casting a single stone, but you know how the rumor mill works. Instead of a story of Jesus’ compassion, it became a tale of his saying adultery is A OK. Instead of praising Jesus, though, for standing with a woman in what was probably her most fearful as well as her most embarrassing hour, he was ridiculed.
You don’t stumble upon the kinds of people Jesus gave almost all of his time meeting and ministering to at separationist denominational conventions or church camps for those who regard themselves, when all is said and done, as the religiously elite. They are better than others whom they may condescendingly hope to convert, and only after the presently unappealing and unacceptable person converts and conforms might she or he be a peer.
You and I encounter the kinds of people Jesus met in the most secular of places. Jesus loved God with all his heart, his soul, and his mind, but that man embraced the secular! Jesus didn’t embrace a secularism that rejected religion by any means, but he would have none of separating himself from the real world.
The last thing Jesus would have encouraged would have been people of faith separating themselves from the strugglers who needed the most help, the most encouragement, the most compassion. If we’re going to be anything like Jesus, we too must make friends with secularism.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Small Groups Can Change the World

Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock

Greenpeace is an international organization headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, whose stated mission is to prioritize international environmental issues. It has 2.8 million supporters worldwide and has offices in forty-one countries.
Greenpeace has had a huge impact for the good in our world since it got underway.

In 1971, motivated by their vision of a green and peaceful world, a small team of activists set sail from Vancouver, Canada, in an old fishing boat. These activists, the founders of Greenpeace, believed a few individuals could make a difference.

What initially drew these people together was their desire to “bear witness,” as they said it, to the nuclear tests being carried out by the United States government at a tiny island called Amchitka. Amchitka is just off the west coast of Alaska and is, or at least was thirty-seven years ago, one of the world’s most earthquake-prone points. Besides the obvious damage to the environment nuclear testing causes, Amchitka was the last refuge for 3000 sea otters.
This small group of people boarded an old ship, named the Phyllis Cormack, and headed for Amchitka. The US Coast Guard intercepted them before they reached their destination. They were not able to stop the detonation of the bomb, but they attracted more than a little public interest; and soon many more people were demanding that the US government stop nuclear testing.
A significant movement was begun. Nuclear testing at Amchitka stopped that same year, and the little island was designated as a sanctuary for bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and other birds. I would call that tremendous success, wouldn’t you?
Their list of successes is impressive, and all of us have been helped by Greenpeace whether we know it or not. For three quick examples:

This year, Greenpeace is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Antarctic Environmental Protocol. Leading up to the confirmation of this agreement, Greenpeace had campaigned for more than fifteen years, calling the world’s attention to the problems of mining in the world’s last untouched continent. This bold agreement reversed decisions made by the Antarctic Treaty Nations to mine on Antarctica.
Greenpeace took on the Apple Corporation, criticizing its massive electronic waste patterns, and in May of last year the first step toward correcting this growing crisis was taken. Finally, Apple agreed to stop using the most destructive of the chemicals it had been using to manufacture Mac computers, iPods, and the rest of its product line.
In response to Greenpeace pressure, McDonalds, in July of last year, stopped selling chicken that had been fed soya grown in deforested areas of the rain forest. This alone was a huge victory for Greenpeace and the environment, but its impact accomplished even more. Several major grocery chains joined McDonalds in a zero deforestation policy; none of the companies will now sell anything that required loss of rain forest acreage to produce or distribute.

All of this, and it’s just the tip of the untouched iceberg, because a handful of rebels on a boat said, “No more.”
Our church has a Fair Trade Coffee Shop. Fair Trade and Free Trade, by the way, are very different initiatives; we’re a part of the FAIR Trade movement.
Our typical after-church coffee sessions take place in and around our Fair Trade Coffee shop. Thanks to the hard work and the creativity of one of our resident artists, Trina Gardner, the walls of our small shop have become vibrant murals reflecting life and environment in the parts of the world where coffees are generally raised. Except for a few places in Hawaii, US soils and climates don’t allow for the raising of coffee; most of the world’s coffee is raised in third world countries by largely poor coffee growers.
Already poor, they were exploited by large coffee buyers from first world countries such as the United States. Companies like Starbucks and Folgers began to go into these areas and tell the struggling coffee growers how much they were willing to pay for the harvested coffee beans; they promised to elbow out the competition. Rather than get nothing at all, the coffee growers kept taking these pitiful pittances for the coffee they’d grown. Big bully buyers kept driving the prices of coffee down while on the grocery store shelves of first world countries and at their fancy-schmancy coffee shops the prices have been catapulting.
The Fair Trade movement was begun to stop this unending cycle of use and abuse. The Fair Trade Movement insisted on paying the coffee growers a living wage and a fair price while at the same time, where possible, throwing in what some call “social premiums” so that the coffee growers can get medical care and educate their children.
The Fair Trade movement, long before it had that name, began as program piloted in 1946 by the Mennonite Church to pay a fair price for handcrafts produced in developing countries. The Mennonite Church is one of the smallest of all religious groups in this country, but their efforts led eventually to the much larger Fair Trade movement; and now not only are Fair Trade handcrafts from third world countries available at a fair price to both maker and buyer, but also growers of coffee, tea, and cocoa working with Fair Trade groups are being fairly compensated.
Perhaps the most critical need for Fair Trade purchasing is in the cocoa bean/chocolate industry. Most of the cocoa beans for the world’s chocolate sweet tooth come from the Ivory Coast where the world’s largest three chocolate producers for years had driven costs down by offering a take it or leave it price with the promise that would-be competitors wouldn’t be able to compete after all.
In the last several years, the impossibly low prices being paid by companies like M&M/Mars and Nestle to the cocoa bean growers along with the increased first world demand for chocolate have resulted in extreme child labor and, in some cases, child slavery--just so we can continue our chocoholism. To stay alive, families in the Ivory Coast and in several surrounding African countries, notably Mali, often feel forced to sell their own children, especially 12- to 16-year-old boys, into slavery for cocoa bean production. If we don’t buy Fair Trade chocolate, which is harder to find and more expensive than “regular” chocolate, the cocoa beans that became our chocolate bars might have been grown by young boys being beaten by slave masters for not working fast enough to harvest the cocoa beans.
At this point, the Fair Trade Movement remains small, and the amount of total Fair Trade products sold in comparison to products sold that hurt human beings and/or damage the environment is small, but these small groups are, nonetheless, changing the world for the better. The most recent expression of Fair Trade that I know about was reported in Time magazine last month. This impetus is called “Fair Indigo: Fashion with a Conscience.” This group makes sure not only that clothing makers are paid a fair wage for their labors, but also that children are not doing the work and that those who are working aren’t doing so in sweat shops.
Just for purposes of comparison, it is also worth pointing out that small groups also have the power to change the world for evil. Most of the time when evil is brewing, it’s only a small group that is brewing it, but from such small groups serious evil can eventuate. Consider these:
The horrors of South African Apartheid were conceived and enforced by the white minority in the country.
Religious-based violence and terrorism come from a small group of radicals within the larger religion whether it’s Islam or Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism.

George Kateb is summarizing the philosophy of Hannah Arendt when he explains her view of how evil comes into the world:

...initiative is taken by a small group that is possessed by a fiction, by an ideology, that recognizes no boundaries on the ambition to realize it. But how does evil take hold? By means of the very morality of the mass of citizens. The reason is that, much of the time, morality is for most people nothing different from conformity to mores, and hence they can comply with any command or practice and do so with an easy or good--that is, unactivated--conscience.

Rita Nakashima Brock is Founding Co-Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good and a Scholar in Residence at the Starr King School of Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at the Claremont Graduate School. In her autobiographical reflections, she shares that she is biracial. Her birth father was Puerto Rican and her mother Japanese.
Her mother married an American soldier, and that is how she ended up in the United States. While still a child, she lived for a time in Mississippi where she was exposed to fundamentalist hellfire and damnation preaching. “Ever since,” she wrote, “I have been allergic to the guilt and fear such ideologies evoke and to speakers who exploit people’s fear or hate to manipulate their listeners to change.”
Rita Nakashima Brock is a feminist theologian and has taught religion and women’s studies at a number of colleges and universities including Harvard. Her most recent book is entitled, Saving Paradise, a study of theologies of holy war. Her most well-known book is entitled Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power for which she won the Crossroads/Continuum Award for best manuscript in women’s studies in 1988.
Faith Voices, the organization Dr. Brock co-founded, is a non-profit, public community trust, begun in November of 2004. Its purpose is to create greater public awareness of shared values of our country’s diverse religious groups. They do this by focusing on innovative technology, work in theological education, and scholarship in religion.
Her sermon, to which I’m responding today, is entitled “The Courage to Choose/The Commitment to Being Chosen.” She preached this sermon in October of 1987 at the St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
Dr. Brock opened her sermon by telling the story of a brave woman whose name she never knew. The woman was a good citizen who generally supported her government the way most of us do. Then something happened she couldn’t support. California Attorney General, Earl Warren, who would eventually become Governor of California and then the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, signed into law the policies and plans for putting Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.
Many of this woman’s neighbors in California were Japanese Americans, and she saw them being carted off to their prisons. Immediately, this woman began lobbying California legislators. She wrote letters to the President of the United States. Nobody in any official capacity paid any attention to her or her concerns. In fact, there seemed to be few sympathizers anywhere. On the scene of American religion, only the Disciples of Christ denomination officially protested the imprisonment and the accompanying confiscation of property.
She felt helpless. The one proactive step she could take was to buy up their properties, which the government sold for a dollar per farm or home. When the war was over, she was able to return to her neighbor Japanese-Americans their homes and their land. She only knew of a handful of others who cared with her about the plight of the Japanese Americans.
In the mid-1970’s in Argentina, the dictatorship of Videla (and later Viola and Galtieri) was torturing and killing its own citizens right and left. Anyone who was critical of the government in any way or anyone who cared about someone for whom the government didn’t care, such as the poor, were in danger. Many of those who offended the government died without a trace; for all anyone could verify they simply vanished. They were called by the Argentinians “The Disappeared Ones.” There were some 30,000 of these people.
The average citizen lived in fear of when she or he might be next and wondered what it might be that could offend this bloodthirsty regime. The rank and file citizens felt utterly helpless. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. Thank goodness, I can’t imagine what that must have been like!
Finally, a small group of women, mostly older women as I understand it, who had seen their loved ones disappear one by one, decided they could no longer sit back in silence whatever the consequences. They began going to government offices asking the whereabouts of their loved ones. They were treated as crazy or stupid old women, which was better than being treated as enemies of the state, but it didn’t get them anywhere. Nothing changed. People kept disappearing.
Being written off did not silence them, however. The women decided to take their concerns to the streets. They began walking in silence around government buildings on Thursday afternoons wearing white kerchiefs, which were signs of mourning. They wore pictures of their missing loved ones around their necks. They might easily have become “Disappeared Ones” themselves; one, in fact, did disappear. The others, though, were left alone, and because of their bravery their numbers grew. They got their own name, “the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the conscience of Argentina.”
The international press took note of them and their protests. Because of them the whole world began to learn of the enormous human rights violations taking place in Argentina. Because of the news reports, women in France, New Zealand, and Sweden put pressure on their governments to confront Argentina’s dictator. Women from Holland showed up and began to march with them. Money came to buy a house, food, and clothing for the children of the Disappeared Ones. There are those who believe that this small group of brave women brought the downfall of Argentina’s dictator, which led to the restoration of democracy in that nation.
I think the following sums up Dr. Brock’s sermon, which has deeply moved me and challenged since the first time I read it in the late 1980’s:

At its best this is what the church means, the place where we can find the love of God when our families or societies hurt us. As visible manifestations of the loving grace of God, our commitment to being chosen involves our responsibility and commitment to be God’s loving hearts and hands in the world. This loving activity of the church...empowers us to love passionately and to protest against all that hurts others. Knowing we are chosen, that we are loved by others, and being committed to that chosenness is what gives us the courage to choose to live by our hearts and not our fears....Our courage to choose to love those who suffer, rather than loving power and authority, comes from our commitment to being chosen. All of us, in our own context and our own way, are called to pay our dues where they belong in ways we can find, and the ways are countless.

The other evening at one of our midweek discussions, one of our regulars said something to the effect, “I have always found it remarkable that Jesus, a peasant with a small group of followers, is remembered at all.” That brings to mind a plaque I hung on one of my walls years ago, long since lost through one of my moves; I suppose on the plaque was a poem of sorts, and many of you have probably heard it. Its title was “One Solitary Life.”

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30. Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn't go to college. He never lived in a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned--put together--have not affected the life of [humanity] on this earth as much as that one, solitary life (attributed to James Allen Francis).

Some of the details aren’t exactly precise, but they get across to me a very moving message, a very inspiring message about Jesus.
Here’s the other thing, though. We know that Christianity would never have been born as an entity separate from Judaism and certainly would never have institutionalized itself for preservation and expansion had it not been for the Apostle Paul. Before Paul, though, the survival of the Jesus Movement was entirely dependent on the small group of women and men who had been Jesus’ ardent and intimate followers--at least, until fear silenced some or all of them.
What I mean by that is, all but one of the men in Jesus’ inner circle, whom the New Testament refers to as “the disciples” or “the twelve,” were frightened that Rome would execute them as it set out to do to Jesus. As Jesus moved closer and closer to the cross of execution, these men--some of them big and burley and tough--disappeared from view with the possible exception of the unnamed disciple who stood near the cross of Jesus as he died and whom the Gospel of John referred to as, simply, the “beloved disciple.”
The women in Jesus’ inner circle, who are referred to in exactly that way in many of the New Testament records, were braver than their male counterparts, and, yet, fear finally got to them too. It was a very different fear, but fear nonetheless.
The oldest of our Gospels, the Gospel of Mark, reports not only that women stood with Jesus at the cross until the very end but also that women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, but they fled the scene. This is how Mark closed out his Gospel:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Eventually, they must have spoken up, but who knows exactly when.
So we’ve got the one small group made up of the disciples and the women, and both are frightened into silence--the men for fear of their own crosses and the women for fear of what they couldn’t comprehend much less articulate. These were the people on whom the survival and the continuation of the Jesus Movement depended. How promising was that? If you’re answer is, “Not very,” you’re absolutely right. Yet, they did it.
This frightened handful of people, maybe twenty in number, preserved many of Jesus’ key teachings and kept alive the way of life-in-community he had modeled. If not for these people--many whose names we know and some whose names we don’t know--fifty years after Jesus’ execution, no one would have remembered him or anything he said.
I do, indeed, believe in the power of Jesus’ teachings themselves to inspire and renew, but had it not been for these twenty people once literally crippled by one kind of fear or another the story of Jesus would not have survived. We wouldn’t be here today pondering it in a church that grew out of a response to the challenge to live out his teachings.
We are indebted to Mary Magdalene and Peter and Salome and James (the brother of John) and Mary (the mother of John and James) and John and Joanna and Matthew and Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Nathaniel (also called Bartholomew) and Mary (the mother of Joseph) and Simon the Zealot and Mary (the wife of Clopas) and Thaddeus and Susanna and James (the son of Alphaeus) and Martha and Philip and “the other women” and Andrew and Thomas. If not for them, my dear friends, we would not know about Jesus.
Again I say, once one hears the power and the challenge and the inspiration of Jesus’ words for herself or himself, no help is needed, necessarily, wanting to preserve them further and respond to them in all the appropriate ways. If they hadn’t been passed on, though, by a small, struggling, unlikely group, no one would have them to respond to.
The book of Acts, which is, more or less, volume two of the Gospel of Luke reports that there was a forty day period between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, his being taken up into heaven in a manner similar to what happened to the Hebrew prophet Elijah. After Jesus was gone from Planet Earth altogether, his followers had to figure out what to do, and this is what the book of Acts tells us they did:

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

By this time, Jesus’ family had been drawn into the Movement. Except for his mother’s ongoing involvement in his ministry--although not always completely supportive, we gather--other members of Jesus’ family had had nothing to do with his public ministry. There is no mention of his sisters, but here in Acts, his brothers along with their mother are clearly in the small group that is gathered together for prayer when Jesus is gone, and the future of everything he taught and stood for rested on their shoulders to spread or to let die.
My dear friends, because of that small group, we have the gift of Jesus’ teaching to inspire us and to guide us--to keep on challenging us too. Now, what is it we must do in our small groups to make the world more the kind of place Jesus longed for?
There are plenty of things that need to be changed locally and internationally, cosmically even. They won’t change themselves, and larger groups of people never seem to have been able to accomplish much of anything. So it’s up to us in our small groups to take on the powers greater than we are, at least for the moment, and effect change in keeping with the greatest of the spiritual teachers about whom we know anything at all ONLY because of a small group of bereaved and confused associates who must have said to themselves after their times of prayer, “Whatever it takes, people after us must know what he said and did. Whatever it takes!”