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Psalm 1:1-3 (Inclusive Psalms Translation)
Philippians 3:17 – 4:1 (New Revised Standard Translation)
It’s one of the worst realizations as a parent, a guardian, grandparent, teacher – anyone who is around young kids – they will pay attention to what you do much more than what you say. It has generated a now venerable saying inherited by parents everywhere – “Don’t do as I do, do as I say,” which, of course, makes no sense to the person on the other end. The truth is that for all of us, no matter our age, well done is better than well said. When we speak of the integrity of a person, it isn’t measured in how well they speak, but how their words and their actions match up. When someone says one thing but does another, trust what they do.
For Paul, what followers of Christ DO is really important. Paul encourages the church at Philippi, and all the communities he engages for that matter, to a very high ideal, nothing less than what he calls the cross of Christ. And here’s where we need some unpacking, because when we hear “cross of Christ,” most of us think the most common theological stance, sacrificial atonement – Jesus dies on the cross for our sins, appeasing God’s wrath and our sinfulness, thereby gaining us eternal salvation. It’s not how I view the cross, nor many others, and I guess it could be the view Paul holds, but I don’t think so. For Paul, the cross is a symbol – a symbol that refutes an entire way of thinking, the rejection of a paradigm that saturates the atmosphere in which he lives with some very certain ideas about how life works. Life is organized by a very strict and divinely ordained hierarchy which states firmly that some people count more than others and God is fine with this – some people are in and some are out. The implications are all around them, Paul says – a reckless and out-of-balance economic system, an almost perpetual state of war as rulers seek power from one another, a entire class of people in slavery and a system of justice that goes as far as to exploit some to maintain the status quo. The cross, you see, is Jesus working against that system with such commitment that he is willing to die for it. The cross is a focus, a model, a perspective. The cross, or rather the resurrection after the cross, is a sign for Paul of God’s great “Yes” to the Jesus plan, God’s approval of Jesus’ version of the way we should live – loving our neighbor, loving even our enemies, trusting God and using our power to help those who have less.
Paul sets two examples in front of his students – the way of Rome and the way of Christ, illustrated with his imagery of being “in this world but not of it,” and his metaphor that living to Christ is dying to the world. That’s how starkly he feels the example needs to be made, like a 12-step, line-in-the-sand, cold-turkey withdrawal from the ideology of the empire. And, like any addict will tell you, that’s easier said than done. But Paul says that a good part of this faithful withdrawal is our perspective, shaped, in part, by having better examples to follow. It’s one of the strengths of group recovery work – you get to see other people who have changed their perspectives. So, Paul says to the Philippians we must become examples – our word “example” translates the Greek word typos, which refers to a blow that leaves an imprint, like what is left by a stamp or a seal, or a slap across the face. And let us note something — Paul presents not only the life of Jesus as the typos that has left a mark, but his life as well. I think of the scene in the movie Airplane, where the people are lining up to smack the lady who’s being hysterical, or Moonstruck, when Cher smacks Nicholas Cage after his profession of love and says, “Snap out of it!!” Maybe we don’t need the physical violence, but a jolt is sometimes needed to wake us up – our example becomes a shock to the system.
It came this week to me in the form of an editorial, her first at the New York Times, from Michelle Alexander, the civil rights attorney and author of The New Jim Crow. In this op-ed she writes – “Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.”
So, I’ll let the echo of that slap reverberate for a second. She continues, “A new nation is struggling to be born, a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, egalitarian democracy in which every life and every voice truly matters. In recent years, we’ve seen glimpses of this new nation at Standing Rock, in the streets of Ferguson, in the eyes of the Dreamers, in the voices of teenagers from Parkland and Chicago, as well as at L.G.B.T. pride celebrations, the Women’s March and the camps of Occupy Wall Street. Confederate statues are coming down as new memorials and statutes are going up in Montgomery, Ala., and beyond, honoring victims of lynching as well as the courageous souls who fought for the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow….Every leap forward for American democracy — from slavery’s abolition to women’s suffrage to minimum-wage laws to the Civil Rights Acts to gay marriage — has been traceable to the revolutionary river, not the resistance. In fact, the whole of American history can be described as a struggle between those who truly embraced the revolutionary idea of freedom, equality and justice for all and those who resisted. One might wonder whether it matters, in the end, whether we consider ourselves members of the resistance or part of the revolutionary river. Can’t we be both?”
So I wonder, friends, what our faith might be – or need to be – if we didn’t hang everything on Jesus, pun intended, but took up the mantle of being examples ourselves? If we were both part of this larger story of the kin-dom coming into form all around us and the ones who bring it into view, both the ones in need of a savior and the ones who must work out their own salvation with fear and trembling?
Greater things than these you will do when you believe, Jesus tells his disciples in John’s version of the Good News, an adage that Paul definitely pushes as well as he takes the image of the cross and asks his students to seize upon that as a metaphor for their own lives. How do we take this metaphor of citizenship in heaven and claim it for us today, not only resisting the empire, but part of it? Surely it’s not in a “in case of rapture this car will be unmanned” bumper-sticker kind of theology. Perhaps it is a shift in perspective – working for justice and peace WHILE seeing to it that we aren’t just setting our sights on our own goals, that we aren’t just seeking our own desires, that our god isn’t our belly, too, as high-minded and sincere as that well-intentioned belly might be, but clinging instead onto the perspective that we are part of an effort, flowing with our faithful siblings in a river full of life – life giving and dangerous, full of the snow and ice of a thousand winters and the blood of those who have come before us. A river that IS going somewhere, in whose flow we are being pulled towards the heavenly vision of a beloved community that the forces around us resist – forces that don’t want heaven, but their safe and known and powerful hell.
On Thursday I helped give a presentation on the New Sanctuary Network at the unveiling of the city’s New Tulsans Initiative, a strategy designed to help immigrants into our city feel welcomed and valued. It’s a effort with a lot of things working against it, and for it to be really successful I believe it will require a different perspective. Too often our discussion of inclusion, particularly around immigration, is couched in the language of fear or trepidation, which keeps us from seeing that different perspective. The example I used Thursday was the pictures of the earth from space. Within our lifetimes – many of us – those pictures were first seen and they had a profound cultural effect. From space there are no borders, no lines of demarcation separating country from country, race from race – just one big, green globe holding all of us as we hurtle through space together. That realization takes us, even if only for a moment, away from the smaller, pettier things by which we divide ourselves from one another and sets our sights on a higher plain, to a bigger picture, a broader perspective. Maybe that’s what Paul means when he says that we ought to be citizens of heaven, or in this world but not of it.
That takes some faithful practice, friends, some faithful, intentional, even counter-cultural practice. And we, just as the Philippians did, need some examples to emulate for I don’t think we can get past our pretty “unheavenly” mindset without working at it. So I give us the example of Jesus, of course, and perhaps even Paul, or at least the Paul of some of the letters. And then I also lift up Gandhi, or Dr. King, or Sojourner Truth, Mandela or Mankiller or Angelou. And I’ll set before us others this morning. Shall we consider the family of Botham Jean, the young man murdered in his own home by a Dallas police officer, whose family has offered what I’m sure is a costly forgiveness for them even as they seek justice and an end to the smear campaign against their son, a family who has approached this awfulness with a faithful perspective, when I would have been screaming into any available microphone. Or shall we consider Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who knows that her truth telling will result in her being chastised for not “saying something sooner”, disparaged like so many who have come before her, and humiliated (again) and yet has the courage to speak out against patriarchy and privilege though it will cost her?
You’ve probably heard the saying attributed to someone – they’re so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good. It fits for people who wear that theology of afterlife concern, that the point of this life is the next one. But that is not our version of a heavenly mindset – no, ours is a mindset of liberation, the idea of heaven come to earth, the coming of the kin-dom, where God’s will for the inclusion of all of God’s creation is made real. We can hear what the Lord’s Prayer asks for – that things be on earth as they are in heaven – as the call to be heavenly minded – not speaking for social justice because of a party affiliation, or a political ideology, but as an act of faith, attached to tradition, community and a much bigger perspective! We do so as a revival of moral thinking, a shift beyond the inherited language or partisanship and competition that Rev. Dr. William Barber says is, “…too puny for the moral demands of our time.” We do so because of the witness of Jesus Christ, and the cross, God’s “yes” to the Jesus plan.
If our minds are set on heavenly ways, if our hearts are revived by a moral clarity, if our actions are examples of a new kind of citizenship, then we might see the spectre of supremacy, bigotry, hatred and violence replaced, conformed, transformed into a spirit of glory, hope, inclusion and love. We may have tears for those who live as enemies to the cross, holding it before them as they continue the very attitudes and actions that nailed Jesus to it in the first place, but we cannot acquiesce to attempts to make us fear one another, or to divide-and-conquer. Our vision is a heavenly one – like looking at earth from space – where the borders vanish and we can hold up what is common to all of us. It’s a perspective with examples for us to see – people and movements which no longer find it acceptable to speak of women’s rights apart from LGBTQ+ rights, separate from civil rights, from immigrant’s rights, from human rights. For this is a movement of theological and moral perspective – human rights are for everyone. Every single other. Because either all of us count or none of us do.
May it be so.