Attempting to Swim Away from God (Eighth in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

I.
Swimming away from God.  I thought that would be a cute, catchy way to draw you into the ancient novella or short, short story called by the name of the prophet who is its central and only named character.  Jonah, as I mentioned last week, was the Prophet of Discontent.  Desperately wanting all stories in which God is involved to have happy endings, Jonah disappoints us; his life and his story have tragic endings.  Though Jonah is a fictional character, he must represent many people, past and present, who die in a state of anger and depression because they couldn’t force God to do what they wanted God to do in this world.
One of the three Isaiah prophets gets how absurd it is for God to do what is unintelligible even in the minds of God’s most faithful people, and he puts these words into the mouth of God:  “My ways are not your ways,” Isaiah’s God says to the faithful.  It was kind of a cop out.  God’s people, and all others who make an effort, should be able to understand how and why God is calling the shots if, in fact, God is doing so.
There are plenty of people who believe there is no great mystery to what God does; we observe it and take it at face value.  What we see is what it is.  Thus, unless they win the lotto, they gradually come to resent God and even to hate God.  There are no death bed conversions for these people; they leave this world with hearts filled with antagonism toward God.
When the great preacher, John Claypool, who developed a highly regarded preaching method popular in the late 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s called “Confessional Preaching” lost his preteen daughter, Laura Lu, to leukemia he, naturally, was devastated.  Understatement.  He like his friend, Carlisle Marney, both liberal Southern Baptist preachers when there were such things, and there were, didn’t play games with what was attributed to God.  Marney, writing from the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, sent his letter of sympathy to Claypool at the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, and in Marney’s pastoral letter of deep concern, he made a statement that started millions when the Claypool story was published.  Wrote Marney, “God has a lot of explaining to do one of these days.”  I don’t believe that either of the great preachers believed God strikes children with horrid diseases in order to remove them from this world.  Even so, given the power and control accorded God by many who regard themselves as people of God, there’s at least a general “why” question in order in such a theological framework.
So, we visited with Jonah last week to look at the issue of malcontentment.  Today, we come again to visit with Jonah, but for a different reason.  Today, we want to know what it’s like to run from God when God has given us a specific mission or ministry.  The reason Jonah is worth this second visit is because he had one of the most creative ways ever conceived of for trying to get away from God.  He ran.  He boated.  Finally, he swam.
So, here’s a part of the conclusion to the story for those of you who want to go ahead and your naps underway.  You can’t get away from God.  You can’t run away.  You can’t swim away.  You can’t think yourself away.  How can I make such a claim?  I appeal to the philosopher or theologian whom the Apostle Paul had in mind when he preached to an exclusively polytheistic crowd, “In God, we live and move and have our being,” or in another acceptable translation of Paul’s sermonic comment, “In God, we live and move and are.”
If this is true, and I think it is, then there’s no means of getting away from God.  God is a part of what it is to be human.  We can’t have some kind of spiritual surgery and have God removed–though neurotheologians joining with neurologists may one day be able to do this for the confirmed and convinced atheist. Until then, we must live with the reality that we can’t get away from God, no matter how far we run–as Jonah tried.  God remains within us no matter where we go.  What we can do, however, if we want to be rid of the benefits of God in us or God with us is to drive an inner wedge within us somewhere so that we prevent any of the benefits of the divine presence from happening to us, for us.
The writer of the book of Jonah may not yet have known that God is unable to be geographically limited, that God is omnipresent, in all places at once.  On the other hand, not knowing exactly when the book was written, the writer may very well have known how futile it is for humans to try to put geographical distance between themselves and God; thus she or he, that is the writer of the story, may be using the novella as a parable.  The writer may not be thinking about geographical distance at all, but rather a journey inward to try to accomplish the same purpose that the fictional prophet of discontent attempted by running and then swimming half way around the world to try to get to a place where God couldn’t find him and, thus, couldn’t speak to him.
Without ever leaving our pews or our easy chairs or our favorite authors who do us the favor of not trying to mess us up with new information, we may attempt numerous inward journeys in our lives to get away from God, God’s instruction, and especially God’s call for us to take on some task that will mess with the comfort level we’ve worked so hard to establish right where we are–with the job we do, within the circle in which we are willing to travel, and with the theological principles we have claimed evidently for a lifetime.  Once we struggle to find a place of theological comfort, we don’t want to be challenged, confused, or moved.  This attitude works very well for those who love creeds.
The thought that we could get to a place where we’d never need to learn or have to learn anything new is absolutely heretical–and I mean “heretical” in a bad way, not in the way that so many Silversiders long for and adore.  Some of the biblical writers insisted that God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.”  Others pictured God, the God taken to see all and know all past, present, and future, as changing God’s own mind–and in one or two cases, even repenting for having made the wrong decision.  Be very, very careful, my friends, what you embrace as eternal and unchanging; you may just find yourselves up the creek without a piddle!

II.
The book of Jonah has some literary and theological flourishes for sure.  One example is that God doesn’t call us to take on specific tasks in such a way that we simply follow with blind obedience, as if we have no choice at all or as if we have no choice if we want the love that is God is remain with us.
The way call stories really work regardless of how they are recorded is that the need finds us and won’t let us go.  God is neither coercing nor haranguing us, neither threatening us nor forcing an ultimatum in our faces.  We see a need, and somehow we know that is the task for which we were made.  Once that happens, we will not rest terribly well until we say, “OK, I will give my life to that challenge.”
Had Jonah been an historic person, the story wouldn’t have been about God requiring him to go to Nineveh to preach to the arch enemies of his people; it would have been about Jonah going to a world missions conference and hearing a former missionary to Nineveh giving her or his life preaching to a stubborn lot taking pride in keeping their backs toward the God of the Hebrew people who, when the dust was removed, was seen to be the God of all people and for all people.  There is was just one of them, one God I mean; not hoards of them.  The old missionary at the world missions conference told of a few instances across the many years of serving God among the Assyrians when an isolated Ninevite, against unimaginable odds, embraced the one and only God there was or is.
Jonah didn’t realize how moved he was by that story.  He couldn’t get it out of his mind, though, no matter what he did.  Back at home and busy with the ministry he loved so well there, at every waking turn and in more than a few dreams, he would hear these words or see them written in the sand, in Hebrew of course:  “Ninevites need God too.”
He did everything in the world he could to get that image out of his consciousness.  Even his analyst who told him that the power of the Assyrians (of which the Ninevites were a part as residents of the Assyrian capital) was a symbol for his father’s loveless power over him as a child, which he continued to resent and rebuff.  He was drawn to it, said his psychiatrist, because first choice for all of us would be to have parents who love us, but if they didn’t for whatever reason we are incapable of rewriting history; we have to let go of the past and get on with the present and the future.  Forty sessions of analysis should do the trick.
This promise of help sounded great to Jonah, and he began his therapeutic program.  As much as he liked and trusted his mental health professional, the message would not leave him.  Before his mind’s hearing and in the seeing of his mind as well, “Ninevites need God too.”
The truth is, his long trip away from his familiar surroundings wasn’t an effort to run from God per se; it was an effort to run what he had known since the old missionary preached that he had to do.  What a horrible task to be cut out for, he kept thinking to himself, but there it was.
I’ve told many of you, some of you a couple of times, about attending the combined graduation exercises for the Harvard University Medical and Dental Schools when my friend, Ricky Grisson, was being confirmed as a Medical Doctor.  A couple of students and a professor from each school were selected to speak, as opposed to bringing in outside speakers.  As we heard from the students, their plans were grand and glorious and so, ostensibly, was their income potential.  The exception was a med student who, perhaps, was one of the last to speak, and he wasn’t going anywhere.  Coveted Harvard diploma and degree in hand, he was going to go home for lunch after the ceremony, get a bite to eat, and then see patients at the impoverished clinic where he’d been working since he did his first clinicals.
Imagining early on that this was just a starting point and that he wouldn’t be dodging bullets, treating patients dying from AIDS because they were too proud to take the medicines everyone would know were for AIDS patients alone, and sewing up wounded gang members who refused to identify themselves for the rest of his life, the years and the hours at the clinic had changed him.  By and by the time for graduation had rolled around, and he knew deep in his heart before the dean asked him what his plans were beyond the ivied walls that except for moving out of Harvard student housing nothing would be changing for him.  I don’t know if God were in the picture for that student in any kind of way, but if so he wasn’t planning to run from what had become more than obvious to him.  In any case, I doubt seriously that God grabbed him at some point by the lapels of his lab coat and shook him and said, “You’re going to be a doctor all right, but nothing fancy for you.  These patients of yours whom most others regard as losers you see as people in need and in pain.  This is the healing ministry I require of you.”
No, I don’t think God ever works through anything process that is in any way coercive.  Instead, I’d guess that over the years, this young doc had worked with these people and seen their souls.  Despite their often rough and tough exteriors, their souls looked the same as every other soul he’d ever uncovered as a physician.  He couldn’t get them out of this mind, and he wondered who’d be there for them if he weren’t.  In time, that became his calling, and he was too smart to run from it.
Jesus saved himself a run from God and/or the ministry that grasped him by spending forty days in some wilderness at the early part of his ministry.  Had he been helping his father, Joseph, in the carpenter shop one day when out of the blue God had said to him, “You’ve figured it out by now haven’t you?  You know what you’re here, don’t you?  The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor. God has sent you to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It could have happened that way, but I think things happened differently.  I suspect that from a very young age, Jesus had been sensitive to what was going on around him spiritually speaking.  We know for example that at his bar mitzvah the rabbis at the great Jerusalem Temple who’d seen hundreds of these ceremonies were astounded with what Jesus grasped before he’d even hit his teen years.  Preachers and faith healers were common place in Jesus’ day.  It’s not a stretch to imagine that he become preoccupied with making people whole physically, emotionally, spiritually.  He didn’t run forward and scream out, “I can do this.  The rest of you get lost!”  He gradually realized that these people in need, in whose lives he might be able to make some positive difference, were ever present in his consciousness.  The calling to try to make others whole grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go.

III.
Francis Thompson was a brilliant English poet–according to Chesterton, the only poet with talent enough to follow in the footsteps of Browning.  Thompson was educated at Ushaw College after which he studied medicine at Owens College in Manchester.  Studying came easy for him, but his studies never captivated him.  Medical degree in hand, he never practiced medicine.  Instead, he moved to London to become a writer.  Things didn’t go so well for him there.  The only work he could get was menial labor.  In his sadness he became addicted to opium and often could hold no job at all; the police around London classified him a “street vagrant” for many years.
Somehow he was able to continue to write.  He took the risk in 1888 of sending some samples of his work to a poetry journal titled Merrie England edited by Wilfrid and Alice Meynell. They were thrilled with what they read and saw the great promise in his poetic skills.  The Meynells arranged for an apartment for Thompson, and they were instrumental in getting his first book published in 1893 carrying the surprising title, Poems.
Poor nutrition, his exposure to the elements to try to work, and his addiction all took their tolls on his health.  Despite his poor health, he was able to publish two or three additional volumes of poetry and a couple of noteworthy essays and could keep the bills paid, more or less, when he had to move to Wales and later Storrington to be cared for as an invalid.  At his lowest point, Thompson decided that suicide was the answer, but when all the plans were laid he had a vision of a young poet, Thomas Chatterton, who’d taken his own life 100 years earlier.  This forced Thompson to take into account how many poems must have gone unwritten as a result so he decided to press on despite his physical and emotional pain.
As his money ran out, a prostitute befriended him.  Evidently she did well professionally.  He never told his public her name, but she shared her home with Thompson and her income when he needed funds. He called her in one of his poems his “savior.”  When she disappeared, Thompson didn’t last long.  He died of tuberculosis when he was only 48 years old.
His most famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” (excerpts of which were read earlier in the Gathering) describes Thompson’s poetic and opium influenced sense that God was always out to find him, chasing after him like a hound at the hunt.  We have already established, I hope, that God doesn’t chase us down to force us to become what we are unwilling to become. Instead, God is within each of us, and when we wrestle with God about our destinies, we are wrestling with the God who never leaves us, not the God as outside force who chases us down like a dog.
There are three of Jesus’ parables about lost things from the Gospel of Luke.  Many of you know one or more of these stories.  There’s a lost sheep.  There’s a lost coin, and there’s a lost son.  In the first two cases, the person who lost something can go out in search for it.  A shepherd, though leaving the other sheep vulnerable, searches for the sheep that is lost.  The woman who loses one of only ten coins she has to her name can search high and low until she finds the lost coin.  But in the third parable in the trilogy, a father’s son leaves him and home, and the father who is a symbol for God in the poignant parable cannot go out in search of his son.  His love for the son stays the same, but he knows that he can’t go out in search of a son who has said, “My place is elsewhere in this world.”  All the father can do, which is exactly what he does in the parable, is wait for the son to return.  There is no guarantee that he will return.  None at all.
Good news, though.  Indeed the son does wake up one morning in a pig sty rooting around with the hogs for a bite or two of some pea pods thrown out for that day’s nourishment.  Suddenly, he has a clear vision of who he was, and who he could have been had he stayed with who and what he’d been raised to be.  The vision was now altered, but the going back home part was not.  He knew that they only place where life could ever be even half of what it had been was back at home.  That vision will not let go of him until he is back in his father’s presence expecting a reprimand, but instead gets the place of honor at a family feast.
The brilliant Thompson surely had a vision of his own wholeness, undergirded by divine love.  This is where he longed to be in life, where he saw himself at his best.  This is what he knew down deep he was capable of becoming under the right circumstances, circumstances that tragically never came around long enough for Francis Thompson to hold on to; or so he thought.
You might be interested in knowing his poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” is the source for the phrase, “with all deliberate speed.” This was used by the Supreme Court in Brown, case II, which has been referred to as “the remedy phase of the famous decision on school desegregation.”
What human need has gripped you in terms of your ability to help?  That is your calling.  Will you embrace it or run from it?  Will you own it or swim away from it as if swimming away from God Godself?  The vision may chase you; God will not.  God will love you, whatever you decide.

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that foll’west all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

Learning to Be Content Where We Are…Or Not (Eighth in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

A Homily Delivered on Earth Day 2012

In Conjunction with a Thanksgiving Ritual to/for Mother Earth led by our Indigenous American Guest, Owltalker

The Little Mermaid was willing to give up her most prized possession and maybe contact with her family for the rest of her life for the chance to become human and spend her life with the man loved. This compelling story from Hans Christian Andersen continues to stir the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike. The Little Mermaid was not content with the life that had been given to her in the depths of the oceans, at least not after, against her father’s demands, she swam to the top of the waters where she encountered the world of humans and saw the young prince with whom she instantly fell in love. Love has made many of us suddenly discontent with where we had been before love overtook us.
In the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” which has been running on Broadway for several years the Little Mermaid sings this very touching song as she’s in the process of confronting her discontent with the world below the surface of the waters.

I want more

I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see them dancin’
Walking around on those — what do you call ’em?
Oh — feet!

Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
Strolling along down a — what’s that word again?
Street

Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin’ free — wish I could be
Part of that world

What would I give if I could live out of these waters?
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?
…..
I’m ready to know what the people know
Ask ’em my questions and get some answers
What’s a fire and why does it — what’s the word?
Burn?

When’s it my turn?
Wouldn’t I love, love to explore that world up above?
Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world

Psychologist Abraham Maslow let us know that discontentment isn’t necessarily an emotional illness, though for some people it sadly becomes that.  Maslow said, “Even if all [our basic human] needs are satisfied, we may still often, if not always, expect that a new discontent and restlessness will…develop, unless the individual is doing what she or he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet….”
We could call the prophet Jonah the prophet of discontentment.  Outside his one small circle of familiarity and control, he seems to have detested most other tasks and most other people as well.  Ironically, perhaps, Jonah was an exceptionally effective preacher, and he was content with his profession as long as he got to preach where he wanted to preach and stay with the sermon subjects with which he was most comfortable; it’s a good job if you can get it.
The day arrived when God came to Jonah with what should have been perceived as a challenge, yes, but more than that, a divine affirmation of his gifts of proclamation.  God said to Jonah, “I need you to do some mission preaching in Nineveh.  Yes, I know it’s the capital city of your people’s most fierce enemies, the Assyrians, but they are not a hopeless lot.  They have the potential to turn to me if appropriately guided and challenged.  That’s where you come in, Jonah.  You have the guts and the gifts to preach a message that doesn’t beat around the bush.  If you tell them they have no sensible choice but to turn from their wicked ways and toward me, they will hear you and be saved from the self-destruction toward which they are speeding.”
Jonah said, “Well, God, you surely know how to build up a preacher’s ego, but I’m going to have to say, ‘No,’ to your gracious invitation.  Here I’m very content.  What I do is appreciated.  I know the ropes, and I’m comfortable.”
God asked, “And?”
“Well,” Jonah clarified, “AND I’m staying here for those very reasons.”
God said to Jonah, “I wasn’t extending you a dinner invitation, Prophet Jonah.  I was politely telling you where your next ministry is.  The thing for you to do is to start packing.”
So, Jonah takes God’s advice, partly, and packs, but then he runs as fast as he can in the direction opposite Nineveh.  When he’d run out of land, he paid the crew of a small cargo ship to let him sail even further, he thought, from God and Nineveh.
The ship’s crew were not men of faith, but as the short story is told they had extraordinary spiritual insight nonetheless.  When confronted by a life-threatening storm at sea, they assume the gods are behind it.  Each crew member and any extra passengers like Jonah were interviewed to see who’d most recently ticked off a deity.  Jonah was the one.  They pled with him to make things right with his God, and he said, “Nah.  Just throw me overboard so the storm will stop and you good people will be safe.”  We now know that God doesn’t cause storms at sea to punish passengers or the members of a ship’s crew.  God didn’t have it in for the more than 2200 people who disappeared after the Titanic surged into an undetected iceberg 100 years ago last Sunday.
Jonah thought that anything bad that happened to him or anybody else was God’s doing, as when a huge fish came and swallowed him whole–whole is good–after he insisted that the sailors throw him overboard.  If a fish swallows you whole, it’s an attitude changer for sure.  Jonah starts to pray, begging the God whom he arrogantly and angrily forsook to get him out of his hell as the big fish’s gastric juices began to work.  Not really expecting God to hear him at that distance from God, he was shocked when God planted an answer in Jonah’s consciousness, “I have a solution.”
“Thank God, God,” Jonah screamed out, jumping for joy, which disturbed the fish’s sensitive stomach causing the fish to vomit.  Not to be indelicate, but that vomit was Jonah’s ride out of the belly of the big fish.  After a day in the spa for a good cleaning, head to toe, Preacher/Prophet Jonah was on his way to Nineveh to preach the mini-message God had given him for the Ninevites.  A Christianized version of that message would be something like this, “If you don’t repent, and I know you’re too evil to be bothered with that, you are going to rot in Hades, separated eternally from the God whom you’ve rejected.”
He become discontented once again because, they heard his message and took his advice.  “We’re going to embrace your God, and we’re going to make amends for all the evil we’ve done.”
God said, “Hallelujah.”
And Jonah said, “Damn those Ninevites.  They don’t deserve a break, and they certainly don’t deserve God.”  In the hot summer of his discontent, he goes and sits out under the killer sun and rehearses the many reasons for his discontentment.  God, he concludes, is behind most of his problems so he ends his career and his life self-alienated from God and overwhelmed by discontentment.  A sad ending to a story, a sad ending to a life.
Aesop had one of his many characters say, “The one who is discontented in one place will seldom be content in another.”  And Ben Franklin once said, “To the discontented person, no chair is easy.”
In Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi, he made a bold claim that not many people before or after him, today included, would dare to say if they were truth tellers:   “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content.”  What?  That’s unAmerican, isn’t it?  Discontentment is what keeps us going.  Not only are we incapable of saying what Paul said, but also we’d turn away from someone who offered to teach us how.
Be careful not to let yourself hear Paul saying, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, therein to be complacent.”  Being content and being complacent have nothing in common.              Twenty-something of your sister- and brother-congregants spent six and a half hours of their Saturday yesterday laying the groundwork for a long-range plan for our church.  We have a lot going our way these days–though we do not dwell in the realm of perfection.  In any case, if someone doesn’t plan for our future we won’t have one.  It’s easy to be content when things are going our way.
Similarly, on this Earth Day, we say that unless Earth’s inhabitants care for her, we will have no future with Mother Earth because we will have gluttoned away her marvelous gifts, and she will be no more.  We cannot become complacent in the growing challenges to keep our Planet healthy and strong.  We may have to be content for a while at times waiting for a critical mass of people to see the dangers of environmental abuse and get on board with antidotes and reversals.  That doesn’t mean we sit around doing nothing in the mean time.
I think Paul meant that he had learned to live with those factors over which he had no control.  Certainly, Jesus had had to learn that lesson.  Paul didn’t mean he learned to love negative circumstances, but he’d learned to pick his battles; and he wasn’t going to lose energy fighting against what, for the moment, he was unable to change.  He was determined to find meaning and a way to affirm life even when things were not going his way for the moment rather than end up like Jonah did.
You know the serenity prayer, though you may not know that it was originally penned by Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

How to Get Out of a Hot, Hot Spot (Seventh in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

I.
How do you get out of a hot spot when you find yourself quite surprisingly in one?  Most of us end up in hot spots a few times in our lives–sometimes because of bad decisions we make and sometimes, perhaps more frequently for people trying to live life well, sometimes due to circumstances completely beyond our control.
Broadly, there are three possible ways to get out of hot spot.  1) We rely on ourselves to think our way out of the mess.  2) Like it or not, we have to rely on others to help us out of the hot spot in which we find ourselves.  3) We rely on divine intervention.
I bring up divine intervention knowing many here don’t believe in that kind of thing and that options one and two are the only options you’ll entertain.  Respecting your well thought through perspectives, not everyone here agrees with you, and they believe that maybe, just maybe, God or the Universe or the Powers of Goodness do on some occasions get us out of a mess.
In the case of divine deliverance the way out will have to be communicated to us in order for us to take the proper action.  I don’t think any divine force is going to come along and scoop us up and get us out of our mess while we wait passively by for divine deliverance.  For example, I’ve heard of people who parachute for sport, jumping out the plane and finding much to their surprise and dismay that none of the strings they pull release the parachute as they fall toward solid ground below; I’ve heard of people, more than a few, living to tell about it, but I’ve never heard of a single instance where the person with the parachute was scooped back into the plane by the forces of a powerful wind, an astounding updraft, from where they were able to come in for a landing aboard a plane out of which they had jumped.
OK, so what if you’re in a jam, and you need to get out of it?  Without overanalyzing the situation initially or becoming paralyzed at the prospects of the risks it will take to get out of that hot spot, there’s a process that a group of Australian helping professionals described, compiled by Dr. Paul Valent, so that we needn’t waste energy thinking our angst in the hot spot is abnormal.  Here’s the process:
Shock and disbelief.  This can’t be happening to me.  How in the world did I end up in this mess?  I don’t deserve to be in this hot spot.  Will I be able to pull out of this with my emotional well-being in tact and my head held high?
Numbness.  After mentally wrestling with the situation and contemplating the possible outcomes, potentially positive and negative, you find yourself, we find ourselves, numb.  We discover that we really feel nothing.  We’re kind of holding out breath and bracing to be hit with the worst of what it is that can happen.
Fear.  Thinking about the worst outcomes leaves us afraid and asking if those eventuate how badly will we fall apart and how critical will others be of us.
Helplessness.  That may be the phase through which we move, however slowly or quickly, when fear has us in its clutches.  We are overcome that we can do nothing to help ourselves, and we can’t imagine how anyone else can help us.
Euphoria.  I don’t know about this, but theses Australians who have studied in great detail coping with crisis say it’s possible after feeling helpless to feel euphoric, to be suddenly overcome with the sense that I can win out over the powers of the dilemma that have me in their grip at the moment.
Sadness.  Losing ground, perhaps.  We think of what this complication has stolen from us–our career, our home, one or more important relationships, the respect of people from whom we most wanted it.
Longing.  Longing for what we had idealized as our future.  We know that even if we come out of this hot spot, that can never happen exactly as we’d hoped and dreamed and planned.  Good things can still happen of course, but what we’d dreamed of can’t.
Guilt.  We feel, or may feel, guilty at this point for not having taken more precautions against what has happened to us.  If we’d only done this.  If we’d only done that.  The world of iffery stokes the fires of guilt.
Shame. For some people prone to it, shame always follows guilt, and finding ourselves cornered as we are at the moment is no exception.
Anger and frustration.  After guilt or guilt with shame, we likely become angry at ourselves and others who were involved in any way in getting us to the place we now detest.
Disappointment alternating with hope.  This is where we end up.  Even if we escape the worst that the situation might have brought, we may still have moments here and there of deep disappointment that we ever found ourselves in this hotspot in the first place.
We independent types warm up to the idea that we have the smarts to get ourselves out of any situation, pretty much on our own though we face the reality of what it may cost us emotionally, financially, and so on.  We wouldn’t be looking for or wanting help from anyone else unless we’d exhausted all of our own ideas and energies trying to get out of whatever mess in which we find ourselves.  We would only be open to letting others help us if all of our own resources somehow failed us.
In that case, having a great friend who happens to be resourceful and courageous is a wonderful thing.  This had to have been the kind of friend Cole Porter had in mind when he wrote the words and the music to his song, “Friendship,” first recorded, I believe, by Judy Garland.

If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
If you ever feel so happy you land in jail, I’m your bail
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships have been forgot
Ours will still be hot

If you’re ever down a well, ring my bell
And if you’re ever up a tree just phone to me
A-yes-sir-ee
If you ever lose your teeth and you’re out to dine, borrow mine
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships have been forgate
Gate?
Ours will still be great

If they ever black your eyes, put me wise
If they ever cook your goose, turn me loose

It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships have been forgit
Ours will still be it

If you ever lose your mind, I’ll be kind
And if you ever lose your shirt, I’ll be hurt
If you’re ever in a mill and get sawed in half, I won’t laugh
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships are up the crick
Ours will still be slick.

II.
Even after the Brothers Grimm softened the original tale of Hansel and Gretel, which is what they did with original peasant lore for adults that they happened upon, it still never became a heart warming tale.  Instead of blaming all their kids’ problems on video games, which deserve plenty of blame, parents might want to think further back to the stories they read to the children before they could read for themselves.  If someone gave you a grand collection of the tales collected and adapted by the Grimm Brothers, and you read all of those tales to your children, well you should at least have gotten them a therapist to go along with the tales the Grimms were supposedly children-izing.
In the most well known version of the Hansel and Gretel tale, we meet two little children who become lost in the forest after their parents, their father and their stepmother, leave them there because there isn’t enough food for four in the house.  Immediately, we are in touch with a time not so very long ago when children were not valued the way most of us value our children today.
So, Hansel and Gretel, left to their own devices, eventually find their way to a nifty gingerbread house, which unbeknownst to them of course belongs to a wicked witch. The children end up enslaved for a time as the witch prepares to eat them. Thankfully, they figure their way out and escape, which doesn’t take away the trauma of what they suffered on their way to freedom–no thanks to their father and stepmother who nagged at her husband until he did with the children what she demanded.  A nagging spouse is something no one wants, but if you do something wrong blaming your nagging spouse is a waste of breath.  You made your choices to do what you did.
There’s an older French version of this tale that was adapted by the Germans, something the Brothers Grimm likely didn’t know.  The French story had the title, “The Lost Children,” and instead of a wicked witch as their foil, they had to contend with a demon, an old demon if that matters.  In the German version, the kids trick the witch by playing so dumb she falls for their ploy, and they get out of the there relatively unscathed–physically at least.  In the French version of the story, which might have been the original, the kids play dumb, but the demon alone is not tricked; instead, he and his wife together are tricked so that Hansel and Gretel escaped after an act of violence, namely slitting the throat of the demon’s wife.
Someone needs to write a modern version of “Hansel and Gretel” titled Mommy and Daddy Dearest in which they let the world know how their parents treated them.  Sadly, parents in their day likely would have thought the parents of Hansel and Gretel made a wise, necessary decision.  Today some of us would be up in arms, but our culture has almost nothing to do with the culture or cultures in which this wonder story was conceived.   Children were work bearers and sharers, not the gifts most of us think them to be in our time and place.
The whole reason the children were left out in the forest at all was because there wasn’t enough food to go around.  In other words, the parents would have less to eat and be hungry if there were four mouths to feed instead of two.  Certainly not all parents today, but many parents in our present culture would, without giving it a second thought, do without food for themselves to make sure the children were fed.
The story isn’t about that, though it’s an issue we can’t overlook.  The story is about an ingenious couple of kids, Hansel and Gretel, a brother/sister team who because of their smarts got themselves out of a hot, hot spot literally.  In the German version, which most of us know because of the Brothers Grimm, the witch has Hansel in a pen of some sort fattening him up to be the main course at a feast for one she will soon celebrate.
When the day came for her to have roasted Hansel, she told Gretel to see if the oven were hot enough to roast her brother.  Gretel showed that she was brainy by pretending that she had no idea how to check the level of heat in an oven.  The witch told her she was stupid so the witch goes over to check the heat level in the oven.  When she opens the oven door to see how much heat she could feel, Gretel pushed the old witch right into the oven and let her roast.  I’m not sure why the oven was equipped with a latch, but it was; and to make certain the witch couldn’t escape Gretel and Hansel padlocked the oven.
This is how the story ended:

Then they stayed for several days to eat some more of the house, till they discovered amongst the witch’s belongings, a huge chocolate egg. Inside lay a casket of gold coins.

“The witch is now burnt to a cinder,” said Hansel, “so we’ll take this treasure with us.” They filled a large basket with food and set off into the forest to search for the way home. This time, luck was with them, and on the second day, they saw their father come out of the house towards them, weeping.

“Your stepmother is dead. Come home with me now, my dear children!” The two children hugged the woodcutter.

“Promise you’ll never ever desert us again,” said Gretel, throwing her arms round her father’s neck. Hansel opened the casket.

“Look, Father! We’re rich now . . . You’ll never have to chop wood again.”

And they all lived happily together ever after.

Englebert Humperdinck wrote an opera based on the “Hansel and Gretel” wonder story–Englebert of the nineteenth century, not the now-aging pop singer.  An excerpt from one of the songs in the opera, a duet titled “Evening Prayer”:

Sleeping sofly, then it seems
Heaven enters in my dreams;
Angels hover round me,
Whisp’ring they have found me;
Two are sweetly singing,
Two are garlands bringing,
Strewing me with roses
As my soul reposes.
God will not forsake me
When dawn at last will wake me.

III.
So, if I can’t myself out of the hot spot I’m in, and if there’s not someone else to rescue me from between that rock and hard place, some would say there’s a third possibility:  divine deliverance.  Some who hold to this possibility believe it should be number one on the list and that we should rely on God to deliver us from any and all crises.  In this group, there are those who sincerely believe that if you pray correctly, effectively God will deliver you, us, from every threatening situation in which we find ourselves; further, they believe that there’s nothing we should do other than pray and wait on God to snatch us out of the hell hole, which has found us for who knows what reason.
As I indicated at the beginning today, I’m not opposed to the notion of supernatural deliverance, but one thing about it that’s for sure; we can’t depend on it, and we certainly can’t demand it.  God or the Universe or your Higher Power doesn’t work on demand–though, to hear some preachers tell it, if we don’t rely on God to get us safely over the place of threat we’re kind of dumb; and if we ask only to have God say, “Nah,” then we must deserve whatever consequences will do with us since we can’t escape.
Isn’t the divine promise, once it’s refined by Jesus and his experience, that God will never leave us or forsake us; not that God will always get us out of the hot spot?  Jesus prayed to get out of one hot, hot spot, and God said, “Can’t help you, sorry.”  Really?
Let’s push further back to the ancient Hebrew tale that was our reflective reading for today.  During the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, of Babylon, the powerful King had a nine-story golden statue erected on the Plain of Dura, in the general area of what today is called Karbala, Iraq, about 100 kilometers south of Baghdad.  The statue was probably an image of him, Nebuchadnezzar, but there is the possibility that the statue represented the Babylonian god of wisdom, Nabu.  Sounding a bit like a precursor to Roman Emperor Domitian in the book of Revelation, the King established a law that when the music to kneel began to play, everyone anywhere near the statue, Babylonians and their captives such as the Hebrews, were supposed to bow down before what amounted to an idol and worship it, worship either the King or Nabu.  According to the law, those who refused, if any dared, were to be executed by being thrown into a burning furnace.  Smart King; he thought of everything ahead of time.
There were some young Hebrew men who’d been selected by Nebuchadnezzar for special Babylonian educational opportunities.  Had the King not given them this remarkable opportunity they’d still be living in constantly guarded ghettos and treated as prisoners.  Instead, they had by virtue of the privileges provided by King Nebuchadnezzar responsible jobs in his government.  Their Babylonian names were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  When the bow-down music played for the first time, some of the King’s native advisors noticed that the three Hebrews were not bowing down; they naturally reported this to the King who went ballistic.  The consequences for their refusal had already been established in the lawbooks, and we all know that once that happens there’s no way to get things changed.
He felt close to these young men whom he’d seen grow and develop as Babylonians, even though they were Hebrews.  He, therefore, gave them another chance.  This is how they responded with complete respect for the King and his position:
“Your majesty, we must not attempt to defend ourselves in this situation. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it and will for sure rescue us from the hands of your executioners.  If for some reason, God does not rescue us, though, we will die believing we have done the only honorable thing we could have done before our God.”
Any personally positive connections Nebuchadnezzar had with the young men at that moment went up in smoke, so to speak.  He commanded his executioners to heat up the furnace seven times hotter than usual.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were bound and cast into the blazing furnace wearing their Friday best.  The executioners who had the responsibility to throw the three Hebrews into the man-made hell died trying to get close enough to the opening of the furnace to toss them in.
By the way, execution by burning was a common practice by more than one Babylonian ruler.  It was obviously Nebuchadnezzar’s method of choice, and burning as the penalty for certain crimes is detailed in the famous Law Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian monarch in the eighteenth century B.C.E.  Though the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is a brilliant piece of fiction, it would have taken place, if historic, about 595 years before Jesus was born.
The King evidently had a theatre built from which he could watch his enemies burn in the furnace.  When he went to see if Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were toast yet, he saw them unbound, walking around and talking in there as if they were at the spa for a sauna session.  As shockingly, he saw what appeared to be another man in there with them.  Who in the world was that person if his eyes served him well?
Practically everyone who has studied the story has a theory on who the fourth person was.  Most say, he was probably an angel.  Some say it was Jesus making his first appearance on earth; with all due respect for those who believe this, I think it’s the worst suggestion ever and impossible in this literary/theological context.
All we can know is that it was the storyteller’s way of saying God sent God’s messenger to save the courageous men of faith.  God, then, got them out of their hot, hot spot, which is the message and moral of the story.
King Nebuchadnezzar immediately warmed up, no pun intended, to the God of the Hebrews, and he made another law.  That’s what politicos do.  The King acknowledged the remarkable power of the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and had it written into law that any nation even if the Babylonians had nothing else against them who made any kind of slur against the God of the Hebrews would be immediately attacked by the great armies of Babylon.  And, oh yeah, for what it’s worth, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all got job promotions.
So, where shall we pause today?  Since a political election gets nearer and nearer all the time, I’ll say the best approach to getting out of a hot, hot spot is to utilize all three options I’ve presented.  I think we should always try to take charge of our lives and our fate if we possibly can, but if I’m caught between a rock and hard place and a friend is willing to get me out or try, I think it is decidedly unwise on my part to turn down the offer of assistance.  Furthermore, I think that living so that the positive effects of God’s presence and love or that of the Universe or the Great Mystery can get me to where I need to be is the thoughtful way to live.
For what it’s worth, I’m your pastor, and if you’re ever in a jam, here I am.
Amen.

Martyrs and Memories (Sixth in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

 

 

I.
During World War I, British military chaplain, the Reverend David Railton, stumbled across a grave on the Western front. The grave marker was a rough wooden cross that had the following words inscribed on it in pencil: “an unknown British soldier.” What Chaplain Railton saw that day caused him to appeal to his government, urging it to create a national monument in memory of all the unknown, fallen soldiers who’d given their lives in service to their country.  The idea received support from the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as King George V. What resulted was the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in London’s Westminster Abbey.
The French soon followed suit and erected its monument in the Arc de Triomphe. It is called La tombe du soldat inconnu.
The United States may have been third to create such a monument. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier here in our country, in Arlington National Cemetery, was originally a mausoleum in which the unidentifiable remains of a lone soldier were interred, and the remains of that soldier were symbolic of all the remains of countless soldiers whose lives had been lost in service to their country and who, once fallen, remained unknown. Identities were unknown.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was reconstructed and after the reconstruction officially became known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, still at Arlington National Cemetery.  It contains the remains of unknown American soldiers from World War I and World War II and the Korean conflict. Each soldier was presented with the Medal of Honor at the time of her or his internment. The tomb is guarded 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year by a special trained group from the Third United States Infantry nicknamed The Old Guard.  A different soldier comes on duty from the Old Guard every 30 minutes of every 24-hour period, and guards the final resting places of the Unknowns.
To be a member of the Old Guard is regarded as a high privilege.  Whoever is invited to join the Old Guard must make a total dedication of self to serve in this essentially sacred capacity.  This is the pledge each soldier chosen to serve in the Old Guard must take before her or his service can begin:

 

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest
under my eternal vigilance.

 
The soldier who wishes to undertake this responsibility/opportunity must commit two years of her or his life to this singular specific task.  During this time, she or he lives in a barracks under the Tomb.  The soldier may never, ever use alcohol while undertaking these duties, nor may she or he use curse words or other foul language.  In the beginning, the soldier is said to have pledged not to drink any alcohol on- or off-duty during the two years of active guarding or for the rest of his life.  Similarly, he could not swear in public during those two years of duty or for the rest of his life.  Back to the present, a soldier serving in this honor guard cannot disgrace the uniform by fighting interestingly enough during the two years of guarding the Tomb or ever thereafter.
Guards who serve are given lapel pins indicating who they are and what they do.  These may be and usually are worn after the two year term is over as well.  These military women and men are rightly proud of the duty they have undertaken.  Presently, there are some 400 active and retired military personnel who may wear this badge of honor.
The memorial words engraved into the mausoleum read: “Here Rests in Honored Glory American Soldiers Known But to God.”
I did not know until I began putting my thoughts together for this Easter sermon that our country has two other tombs for unknown soldiers. One is right up the road in Philadelphia: it is the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier and is housed in Washington Square. The third is the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier at Fort Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi.  I believe these were built after the Tomb of the Unknowns even though the history they reflect preceded World War I.
It turns out that there are several of these all around the world. A few I’d mention, for no particular reason, are the Australian War Memorial in Canberra where the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier stands.  Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at the National War Memorial, in Ottawa’s Confederation Square. Egypt has its Unknown Soldier Memorial in Cairo very near the tomb of President Anwar Sadat. In Greece the Monument of the Unknown Soldier is in front of the Greek Parliament building so the lawmakers see it coming and going; like the American Tomb, the Greek Tomb is guarded around the clock by an elite guard.  Their guards are part of an elite presidential detail called the Evzones.  In Iraq there is the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad.  Israel has the Garden of Missing Soldiers on Mount Herzl near Jerusalem.  The Philippines, in the city of Makati, has its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and Spain has its monument to the anonymous fallen near Madrid.
You don’t have to have a known name to be remembered for your bravery and your sacrifice.  Neither do you have to have a tomb so that your contribution may be appropriately recognized.  In a nonmilitary context, Wolfgang Mozart’s body was tossed into a mass grave for paupers and sprinkled with lime until the grave was full enough to fill in with dirt.  This unseemly farewell to the most amazing musical mind of all time because he was poverty stricken at the time of his death, having wasted all the money he could make, hasn’t kept musicians from giving Mozart and his compositions their due.

II.
Viktor Emil Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.  In 1930, as a young psychiatrist, he was put in charge of a ward in a psychiatric hospital for the treatment of female patients with suicidal tendencies.  When the Nazis took power in Austria in 1938, Frankl was made director of the Neurology Department at the Rothschild Hospital, the only Jewish hospital allowed to remain open and receive patients during the early Nazi years.
In 1942, with hatred of Jews in Europe at its highest, he, his wife, and his parents were deported to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp near Prague.  This would be the first of FOUR concentration camps in which he would be imprisoned.  One of the four was the most feared of them all:  Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
At Theresienstadt, he caught on immediately to the effective emotional games the Nazis were playing with those whom they captured.  Upon entering the camps, the men and women–including husbands and wives–were separated from each other.  In their respective areas of the camp, the new prisoners were forced to strip; their clothing was taken away and destroyed.  They were shaved so that even the hair on their bodies was taken from them.  Their names were forgotten, and each one became a number.  Frankl had carried with him a manuscript of his life’s work, the only copy; that was yanked out of his hands and burned to a crisp.  The Nazis were trying to steal everything from them, most significantly their identities, their inner selves.
In time, Frankl’s wife, father, mother, and brother all died in those camps.  Only he and his sister survived–a handful among countless tragedies, but each one just as tragic and just as significant as the next.
Dr. Frankl believed that there were two different kinds of meaning in life:

 

1. Ultimate meaning
Ultimate meaning is a meaning we can never fully reach, but we can catch a glimpse of it at the horizon now and then.  It can be God, he said, but also science as the search for truth, nature, and evolution for those who do not believe in God.
2. Meaning of the moment
All the time each of us has to answer the questions life asks us; and, therefore, it is important to understand the meaning of each moment by fulfilling the demands life places on us. When life has no meaning, it becomes empty.  Under these circumstances we live in what Frankl calls an “existential vacuum.”  It is a state of inertia, boredom, and apathy.  All too many of us know exactly how that feels.  If this state persists, it progresses into existential frustration, and eventually becomes a “neurosis.”   So what do we do?  We try to fill the existential vacuum with drugs, violence, also with food, overwork, sports, etc.  Yet, if we are under the power of the neurosis, we remain unfulfilled.  That is not the only option open to us, however–regardless of how grim a present situation may be.

 
So, if we don’t know how or if we’ve forgotten how, how can we find meaning in life?   Frankl points to three ways, and he calls them the “meaning triangle.”

 

1. Creativity (giving something to the world through your own unique self-expression: using your talents in various ways to create something tangible or intangible for someone else).
2. Experiencing (receiving from the world: through nature, culture, relationships, interactions with others, and with our environment).

3. Change of attitude (Even if we can’t change a situation or circumstance, we can still choose our attitude toward it; this is often a self-transcending way of finding meaning, especially in unavoidable suffering such as he experienced and observed in the horrid concentration camps).

 

Our healthy human core lies in our spiritual dimension, which Dr. Frankl called our noetic dimension; therefore, the medicine chest of his method of doing therapy with patients, especially after his experience as a Holocaust survivor, called logotherapy, is to be found in the noetic dimension.  There, the “defiant power of the human spirit” has to be activated and brought to bear on current life situations to cause the desired change that is healing or life-giving.  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!  Hear that again; it’s the sink-in sentence for the week, and just in case it isn’t yet evident to you, this is powerfully related to resurrection.  Here it is again:  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!
Attributes of a healthy noetic dimension include:

 

1.Responsibility (not from, but responsibility to)
2. Authenticity and creativity
3. Choices
4. Values
5. Self-transcendence
6. Will to meaning
7. Love
8. Conscience
9. Ideals and ideas

 
Somewhere, Dr. Frankl tells the story of a night in the barracks when he tried to discuss some of these ideas with his fellow prisoners.  He was surprised when several of them came up to him with tears in their eyes wanting to know more about how to make a decision not to lose themselves whatever the Nazis did or didn’t do.  Frankl was surprised because so many of the prisoners had had to let their emotional selves die to be able to withstand all the abuse that took place before they were marched into the gas chambers.  Though they’d be buried in mass unmarked graves by people who thought they were no more than trash to be thrown out, Frankl insisted as he talked with them that their lives and their deaths had meaning.  You don’t have to have a casket, a grave marker, or an obituary in order for your death to have meaning for you and those who love you.
Holocaust memorials, in many ways, serve the same purpose as tombs to unknown soldiers. Great writer and himself a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel says that the one thing we must not do out of respect for the martyred millions is to forget what happened to a staggering number of people–all officially anonymous as far as Hitler’s minions were concerned, but not to their loved ones and not to God.

III.
Martyrs other than Jesus have a powerful supporting role in the great drama we call the book of Revelation.  Two key passages take us where we need to be today.
The first passage is from Revelation chapter 6, and remember that everything–seriously, everything–that you hear me reading from the book of Revelation is a symbol, but it isn’t there simply for literary creativity; it’s there to make a point.  This segment is from the famous section where the Lamb of Heaven, who is the resurrected Jesus, is opening the seals of a great scroll.  As each seal is opened, an event of significance takes place.  Listen to the words of the drama, especially the words of the martyrs.  John the visionary who wrote the drama is narrating.

 

Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!”  I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.  When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, “Come!”  And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.  When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, “Come!” I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”  When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!”  I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.  When the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”

 

They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
That doesn’t seem very encouraging to me.  Hang on a little longer while the rest of your families are killed as you were.  In the mean time, you get to wear these gorgeous victors’ white robes.  Aren’t they lovely?
These anonymous martyrs wanted their deaths avenged.  After all, they’d died as martyrs for doing what they believed their faith demanded of them.
I presume the martyrs mentioned in chapter 20 is a different group of martyrs; they’d been martyred in a specific way–by beheading–refusing to worship the Roman Emperor’s statue on command.

 

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.  He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.  Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the risen Jesus a thousand years.

 

These martyrs who’d been beheaded as their punishment were called on to rule with Jesus during the thousand years when instigations of evil on earth are locked away.
Of course, there’s no literal thousand year reign or literal embodiments of evil, but the symbol of those who got the worst that life could hand them, Jesus included, are now rulers, not prisoners.  Those who had known them on earth had been taught to believe that those who were executed had displeased God somehow, and the book of Revelation is saying, “No!”  Look at where your loved ones are in the vision.  They are in God’s care, and they are ruling with Jesus.
You know who they were and are, and so does God.  Your memories, then, are much more than you knew.  Your memories allow you to relive emotionally, though not physically, every bit of joy, pride, excitement, and love you had for your loved one who was martyred for her or his faith.  No one can take that from you just as no one could take your loved one’s core identity from her or him.  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!
The typical Roman followup to a crucifixion was to have the body of the criminal tossed into the City of Jerusalem’s garbage dump where it would decay and/or burn up if a round of spontaneous combustion hit near the place where the body just happened to have been tossed.  Further, final ignominy.  Jesus’ body was spared that.  How a few of his followers got special Roman permission to handle the burial themselves is shocking, but that’s how the story goes.
The earliest written Gospel to tell a resurrection story is the Gospel of Matthew.  The earliest of the Gospels, Mark, has no clear resurrection story to tell; it has an empty tomb tale to tell, but no detailed resurrection account.  Whatever else you may want to make of the resurrection stories that show up in writing thirty-plus years after Jesus’ execution, we know that in part they were developed or fine-tuned to try to make sure no one could ever say that Jesus had been a nobody–one more anonymous martyr whose faith stance and bravery were cut down like a stalk of dried grass and suddenly gone with the wind, never to be heard from again.  Their memories of their encounters forced them to find a way to keep Jesus’ ways and his words.
Rather miraculously they have been kept alive.  Jesus’ earliest followers made certain people kept listening to his teachings as well as what those who knew him best wanted to preserve of stories of his acts.  Many of us are still listening and acting accordingly.
Awaiting execution or suffering as he hung from the cruel cross, Jesus himself undoubtedly needed to be reminded of what others have needed to know as they awaited for their call to the executioner’s block.  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!
Amen.

Meekness Versus Muscles (Fifth Sermon in Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths”)

Meekness Versus Muscles (Fifth Sermon in Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths”).

Meekness Versus Muscles (Fifth Sermon in Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths”)

I.
Muscles and meekness. They rarely operate in concert and, for that matter, are rarely used in the same sentence.  There are exceptions, of course, but not many.  In Jesus’ sermon collection, edited in the Gospels to appear to be one grand sermon though in reality the high points of who knows how many separate sermons sewn together literarily, a standout statement from one of the sermon snippets comprising the Sermon on the Mount, spoken to a struggling and officially oppressed people is this:  “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
We have to be certain we are very clear on the meaning of two words, for the purposes of this sermon.  The first one is “meek,” which typically connotes for us “weak.”  Meek, weak, mealy-mouthed, milk-toasted, and in the extreme embarrassed to take up space on Planet Earth.  These images have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus had in mind when he preached that meek people will finally inherit the inhabitable land.
Famed Scottish New Testament scholar of an era gone by, Professor William Barclay, once said that this word translated as “meek” is perhaps the poorest example of translation work ever shown in bringing a word or a passage from Greek into English.  A Greek, Greek scholar, Spiros Zodhiates, tries to enlighten us.  He begins with Aristotle’s understanding of the word as used in classical or high brow Greek.  According to the brilliant Aristotle, prautes (πραυτες) meant:

…the middle standing between two extremes, getting angry without reason and not getting angry at all. Therefore, prautes is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason. . . . [I]t is a condition of mind and heart that demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power.  It is a balance born in strength of character.

I have the power to fight for sure, but I choose peace and passivity on purpose.  Meekness is Clark Kent refusing to become Superman the second he knows something isn’t right.  It is Lindsay Wagoner holding back on letting the Bionic Woman take control if she can avoid it at all.  It is Bill Bixby remaining Bill Bixby rather than giving in to his natural impulse to become the Hulk instantly.  I’m sure I just seriously dated myself!  Jesus himself was meek, but he wasn’t weak in any sense.
The word translated “blessed” is an idiom in Koine Greek so there have to be options in carrying it into English.  Makarioi (μακάριοι) is a plural noun that can mean “happy ones.” So in this
case it would translate as something like:  “Happy ones are meek ones,” implied:  Happy people are meek people because they are going to inherit the earth–meaning possess the land, and there will not be a single battle in the transfer of ownership from those who owned it before the meek took possession.  That sounds like crazy talk, doesn’t it?
The people to whom Jesus preached didn’t know of any way to become landowners except by purchasing the land, inheriting it, or taking it by force if you were big enough and strong enough.  In Matthew’s version of this part of the Sermon on the Mount, called the Beatitudes, the poor in spirit had already been told that they were blessed and as a result would inherit the Empire of Heaven or the Empire of God, synonyms.
The Beatitudes according to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5, NRSV):

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Empire of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Empire of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jesus’ hearers knew nothing about how to become shareholders in an empire except taking it by brute force, and who could manage such a maneuver with humility as a dominant personal or communal disposition?   Empires pass to hawks, not doves don’t they?
Another twist. If by chance you’ve read the Scholars Version translation of this word from the Beatitudes section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount you know that the Jesus Seminar scholars carried the word typically translated as “Blessed” in this section as, “Congratulations!” Congratulations, you meek folk; you will possess the land.  The ancient Hebrews had said that God had promised them the land, the land on which the Palestinians were already living.  How many wars has that ancient promise provoked?  In the Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that ownership of the land doesn’t go ultimately to any ethic or religious group or to the big power people; it goes to the meek.
The skeptics in the crowd hearing the Sermon on the Mount were likely saying to themselves or maybe whispering their skepticism, “Really?  If this gift is coming our way, when?  And since when did meekness get anyone anywhere in this world?”
That sounds a whole, whole lot like what many of us say in the face of any threat. How many advocate the bombing of Iran now and being done with them for a long while then worrying about meekness such as diplomacy and sanctions later.  The truth is we’re willing to match meekness to meekness, but not meekness to muscles. To muscles we show, at the very least, comparable muscles and an unwillingness to hold back.  The President who is hardly a pacifist has cautioned against so much loose talk of war, but presidential candidates fearful of being seen as meeklings call for immediate bombing and an evaluation of the effectiveness of such a choice tens of years, trillions of dollars, and thousands maybe millions of lives lost later.

II.
Off the international scene and on a more interpersonal level, bullying has become an epidemic in our nation’s public and private schools.  It has led to who knows how many deaths of children and teens, many of whom have taken their own lives rather than face another day of being threatened throughout yet another day of school that the government requires them to attend.
When my sons were in middle school and high school, the schools they attended had same rule. If another student hits you, you cannot defend yourself. If you hit back then both aggressor and victim will receive the same punishment. The only way you could come out OK in the school’s eye was to tattle or stand there or lie there and be beaten to a pulp by one or more students.  If you dared to tattle, what was going to happen?  More bullies would sprout up.  I didn’t understand it as a kid, but this is exactly why my Dad told me I could never under any circumstances be a tattle tale.
Ms. Dot, aka Dorothy Siegfried, one of our lead children’s Sunday School teachers, told some of us the other evening after Church Council meeting that the most frequently asked question by our Silverside kids when they are discussing values and practical living is, “How do I deal with bullies?”  Well, that depends.  There are so many kinds of bullying.  This disturbs me for them and for you, their parents.
Two months ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement calling cyber-bullying, one of several types of bullying, the most common online risk for all teens in our country,  as if the teen years weren’t tough enough already.  Here are some quick statistics.

  • 32% of the teens who use the internet with any regularity and who are allowed by their parents to use the net for personal and social communication tell their guidance counselors and, much less often their parents, that they have been targets of a range embarrassing and/or potentially dangerous online acts–from having someone publish a message they, the senders, took to be personal and private all the way to blatant threats of harm.
  • Since the American Academy of Pediatrics released its statement, 11% of all middle school students in our country who use the net for personal and social communication have been victims of cyber-bullying; that’s 11% in the last eight weeks, girls are more likely than boys to have been victims of cyber-bullies.
  • The more time our kids are online in social networking areas, the greater their chances of being cyber-bullied.  The actual statistic is that those middle and high school students who spend three hours or more on those sites per day are 110% more likely to be cyber-bullied than are those who spend less time there.
  • 67% of teens who will talk about it say bullying and harrassment happen much more offline than on.

Maybe if you haven’t heard of Samson and Delilah from reading your hotel’s Gideon Bible, you heard of the famous pair when the Pointer Sisters were singing their hot hit, “Fire.”  Samson was the strong man in ancient Hebrew lore–also, something of a bully, and like any number of modern muscle-bound men his second favorite place to be, the first being a gym–especially a gym with mirrors, was with sexually available women.  For Samson that often meant bench pressing immediately followed by brothel hopping.  I guess, technically, that counts as exercise.  I’m glad the younger children left the room earlier.
The biblical story of Samson raises the question, among others:  what if your muscles are your only attributes, and suddenly you lose them?  Well, for Samson the result was pitiful and tragic.
The story of Samson is set during a time when the Hebrews who were frequently oppressed by any number of other nations were being particularly bullied by the Philistines.  The childless couple motif emerges as it does several times in Hebrew lore.  In this case, God promises the childless couple that they will have a son and that their son will deliver Israel from Philistine abuse.   In appreciation for God’s gift, this couple brings up their son as a Nazarite.  A Nazarite was a very strictly religious person, mostly males but not exclusively so, and the primary outward sign of this intense religious devotion was long hair; a Nazarite, as a matter of fact, never cut her or his hair a single time after this commitment was made or in the case of children when parents made this commitment for them.  I want you to keep this in mind the next time you’re complaining about the length of my hair, if you ever do!  As the story is told, Samson is blessed by God with exceptional physical strength, which is first evidenced when he kills a lion with his bare hands.  As he grew up, his Nazarite commitments seemed to go a little haywire.  He chooses a Philistine woman as his wife to be, a decision that frightened and stupefied his parents.  What can a parent do, though?
At the wedding ceremony, which lasted for a few days, Samson baffles his wife’s family and friends with a riddle.  None of them could figure it out, so the bride tells them the answer, and this makes Samson really angry so he leaves and goes back home.  Thinking things through for a while, he decides he may have overreacted so he decides to pick up where he’d left off with his wife.  By the time he returns, the Philistines have given her to another man. Samson is irate–not that he had anyone to blame but himself.  Even so, in his rage, he captures three hundred foxes and ties torches to each of their tails, releases the foxes in the Philistine gardens, and thus sets the crops, their main food supply, ablaze.
Samson is on the run and heads back home again, but when the Philistines come in search of him, the Hebrews hand him over in a heartbeat hoping the Philistines will leave them alone.  Someone forgot his strength.  He broke his bindings and found the jawbone of an ass with which he killed a thousand Philistine men.
This former Nazarite buries his woes in the arms of various prostitutes who staff the brothel where he became a regular customer.  He falls in love with another Philistine woman, Delilah; the story is ambiguous about whether she was one of the prostitutes or someone he just happened to notice on a regular basis as he made his way to and from the brothel.  Philistine officials are delighted with the one-sided romance, and they instruct Delilah to do whatever is necessary to discover the secret of Samson’s strength.
This is a summary; the detailed story is much more intriguing.  Nonetheless, for now, Delilah asks the mighty Samson the source of his power three times, and Samson lies to her each time.  Each time Delilah takes what he says as truth and tries to undo his strength source.  Each time the officials run in to overtake him, and his muscles give him a win over them.  Finally, after some serious whining on Delilah’s part, Samson tells her the truth.  His strength is tied to his hair, his sign of profound religious commitment.  When he falls asleep, Delilah cuts off his hair, and when the officials come for him this time, he has no strength to resist them.  They capture him and gouge out his eyes.
He is taken to a Philistine prison.  The prison officials forget to keep his hair cut so it grows long again.  At a festival he is brought to an indoor arena and tied to some pillars so the Philistines can see him and ridicule him.  At the height of his humiliation, he with his regained strength, yanks down the load bearing pillars, killing the Philistines in the arena and their rulers.

III.
Jesus had spent the duration of his public preaching and teaching ministry emphasizing the differences between the Empire of Caesar, the massive in size and power Roman Empire, and the Empire of God, a kind of quasi political entity without physical borders made up exclusively of voluntary citizens all of whom are meek and who trust meekness over muscles.
Now, on the way up to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the Jewish Passover feast and festival, Jesus acts out his message in what for him was a mini drama. He had lived out his message day by day. It wasn’t that this occasion of riding into Jerusalem was the first time he had demonstrated his message, but this was the only time he had ever dramatized his message with props and symbols. He, Jesus, was the lone actor in this drama. The many other people who were involved in what he did were unwitting costars, supporting performers. They had no idea that their responses to Jesus had anything to do with demonstrating anything other than what they felt freely as a result of Jesus’ actions.
Going back to my college and seminary days, there was a very popular book titled The Passover Plot written by a Hebrew scripture scholar by the name of  Hugh Joseph Schonfeld. Professor Schonfeld, a Jew who converted to Christianity but not in the spirit of Jews for Jesus, posited the notion that everything Jesus did in the process of getting himself into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration was very intricately planned by himself, that is by Jesus. Nothing could be left to chance.  No risks could be taken that would allow Rome or any of its functionaries or enforcement troops to interfere with exactly what Jesus wanted to have happen during this so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem and beyond.
Jesus‘ purpose in doing all of this was to prove that much he did corresponded to the messiah the ancient Hebrews and many of Jesus‘ contemporaries longed for.  The major difference in the hoped-for messiah and Jesus was that the anticipated messiah would had to have been a man of war.  That, Jesus was not, and though there were some traits in Jesus that messianic scholars looked for, he ultimately failed to pass the test of messiah.  He favored meekness over muscles, and that cost him affirmation from most of the people who knew and knew about him.
Two of the most prominent and respected scholars among the Jesus Seminar group are Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.  In their book on the last week in the Jesus‘ life, they contend that, yes, everything Jesus did getting into Jerusalem was planned to a tee, but for a reason different than Schonfeld proposed.  They say, Jesus wanted to further distance himself from Roman power and muscle than he’d already done in his teachings and his passive responses to their threats to him, mostly voiced by a handful of Jewish leaders through whom they chose to speak.
Timing is everything, right?  Borg and Crossan propose the intriguing idea that to make his point to those who took time to notice, and probably not many did, Jesus acted out a mini-drama.  Jesus was intent on making his point.  So, while Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor whose Emperor-assigned job it was to rule over the Jews in the area of Jerusalem, rode into Jerusalem with his enforce-the-peace troops, atop a white steed, the ride of a military victor, Jesus too was riding into Jerusalem, but very differently.  Jesus was riding on a pathetic little donkey colt, not large enough yet for much weight on its back and certainly not yet ready for an adult rider.  Pilate was watched by many of the Jews intrigued with his pomp, circumstance, and power as well as by those who just wanted to make a good impression on Rome so Rome would continue to leave them alone for the most part.
Pilate was the picture of a leader, and what was Jesus a picture of as his feet dragged along in the dust because the donkey was a colt?  Well, certainly not a worldly leader, certainly not a person of power, certainly not someone whose teachings you’d want to embrace unless you too longed to look pathetic.  There were a few people running alongside Jesus, some believing that he came in God’s name so they shouted his praises; of course, they were drowned out by all the fanfare associated with Pilate’s power entry.  A few tossed branches in the path of the little donkey as they would have done if any person whom they thought great was making her or his way into the Holy City, but it wasn’t a large group.  More people were ashamed of Jesus and how he looked.  What good was a meek person in helping them with all the problems they had to face and try to solve?
Just on the surface, Pilate’s looked like the team to be on if you wanted to get anywhere in that world.  Muscles versus meekness.  The meek, the peacemakers, the poor, and the poor in spirit–they must get their Beatitude-promised rewards in another time and place.  If they were faithful Jews like Jesus, they surely weren’t going to get them then and there.
I think the story of Samson is fictional, though powerful.  I do not think the story of Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem is fictional, but I do not think it’s powerful today because of how profoundly misunderstood it remains.  So, one option for religious attachment is an option that promises you money, shoulders of the rich and famous to rub up against, maybe breakfast with the Emperor (or President), and a luxury animal to ride.  The other option is the chance to look kind of pathetic like the pathetic people you serve, which is your one and only goal.  Which have you chosen, or which will you choose?