Ground Truth

February 11, 2018

Click here to watch the video of the worship service.

Bulletin

 

Texts: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

           Mark 9:2-9

 

“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” - 2 Corinthians 4:6a

 

Prayer

God of surprising love and liberating truth,

we are grateful to be gathered in this sacred space today. Speak to us this morning and startle us once again with your Holy Word. Amen.

 

            Last summer I was invited to be one of the guest preachers on Church Island. It was the second time since I moved to Plymouth that the Chocorua Island Chapel Association invited me to preach. I was looking forward to gathering on the island one last time before the end of summer, but a persistent,

light rain forced us to hold the service in a playhouse at the Rockywold-Deephaven Camp in Holderness.

 

            The summer of 2017 was, as many of you would undoubtedly agree, a deeply traumatic moment in modern American history. I still remember the overpowering feeling of disbelief that came over me as I watched from Europe torch-carrying white nationalists marching through the streets of Charlottesville. I served at the Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville as a seminary intern. The church is just a stone’s throw from the Rotunda on the university campus and the sight of intolerance, violence, and hatred in a place where I had spent so many Sundays teaching and preaching the Gospel of love, justice and peace didn’t seem possible! I could not believe that in the 21st century we would see dozens of Americans chanting far-right slogans that echoed Nazi sentiments and rejected the hard-fought social and political achievements of the last 50 years. The images of a young Neo-Nazi sympathizer ramming his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters and the sound of angry voices shouting hateful catchphrases like “Jew will not replace us” and “blood and soil” weighed heavily on my heart as I sat down to write the sermon I was going to preach on Church Island.

 

            When I stood behind the pulpit on that rainy and nippy Labor Day weekend, I kept thinking of the words Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said at his commencement speech at Oberlin College in 1965, “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] – or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.”[1] I reminded the people gathered at Rockywold-Deephaven that when hate and racism threaten to plunge a whole nation into darkness, inaction is not an option for people of faith. Followers of Christ cannot turn a blind eye to the darkness of our world. As disciples of a crucified Messiah, we can’t look for a way around the darkness in human history, we have to go right through it, right through the darkness, preaching hope, working for peace, breaking down the walls of division, calling people to be reconciled, and working tirelessly to build an inclusive community of friends so we do not all perish as mad people.

 

            After the worship service, a woman approached me and, sounding a bit displeased, she said, “Thank you for your sermon. Of course, we have heard this same message for the last three Sundays.” Before I could say anything she turned around and walked away. Later on, as I was reflecting on that awkward interaction and the comment the woman had made, I thought about a silly joke a colleague e-mailed me a few years ago. A congregation had called a new minister and everybody was really excited, but after a couple of months people began to notice that the new pastor had been preaching the exact same sermon every Sunday. At the end of the service, the church members would line up to shake hand with the pastor at the door and would say graciously, “It was a beautiful service and a wonderful sermon.” But no one understood why on earth the new pastor kept preaching the same sermon. Three months later, a brave member of the Church Council pulled the pastor aside and asked, “Why is it that we have heard the same sermon now for all these weeks?” The new pastor answered, “Well, it is obvious you haven’t gotten it yet; but don’t worry I will preach the same sermon again next Sunday.”

 

            One of my friends in seminary decided that she would not pursue ordination after graduation. She told me that she couldn’t see herself as a parish minister, trying to deliver the Good News of the Gospel in weekly installments. Her fear was that she would eventually run out of creative ways to present the core message of Jesus’ teachings to the people in the pews. And as a passionate woman who believed that at the heart of the Gospel there is a revolutionary message of social transformation, my friend was often at odds with worship services that seek to make people feel good about themselves, but that leave the darkness of human history by the front doors of the church untouched and unchallenged. I still remember how upset she was after she delivered her first sermon at the church where she was doing her Field Education and all she heard from the congregation was what a good job she had done. That Sunday, when we had lunch, I had to listen to a whole new sermon as my friend expressed her frustration at the Sunday service. But in her holy anger, my friend did make a powerful point. She said that a genuine worship service cannot be an escape from the darkness of life, but it has to be an invitation to the never-ending struggle to take the light of Christ’s life-giving words to places where human brokenness keep humanity blind to the possibilities and opportunities for a better and transformed world.

 

            As a man of deep faith who has devoted his life to preparing men and women to parish ministry and who has preached thousands of sermons himself, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann recognizes that it is not easy to make every single worship service and every sermon into an extraordinary moment of dazzling Divine revelation. Brueggemann has been on the journey of faith long enough to know that no pastor, priest or preacher can replicate in any predictable manner those unprogrammable religious experiences that, because of their singularity, uniqueness, depth and truth, open our eyes to the mystery of God and empower us to dispel darkness with the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.[2] But that is exactly why our gatherings on Sundays are so important to our faith journey! When we come together on Sundays our predicable liturgy and familiar songs inspire us to remember that this God of irregular, unpredictable and uncontrollable revelations is still present among us. We gather around the Word and we listen to the same Sacred Texts every Sunday, year after year, because in our attentive listening the Spirit of God reminds us that being a disciple is not about trying to be a nice person. Time and again the Gospel tells us that we know we are followers of Christ when we refuse to let our minds be blinded by the destructive, deceptive and seductive powers of this world and choose instead to live a life of holy struggle for the sake of the Gospel. There is no room for inaction in the life of a disciple and every Sunday when we meet our liturgy, our songs and our listening urge us to remember that our worship service is not a place where we gather to cultivate a meaningful interior life or to feel safe or to be comfortable; no, no, no… we come together to reaffirm a personal decision we all have made to listen to Jesus’ teachings, to follow him, to embody his dreams, and to remain dissatisfied with human history until our world reflects more clearly the love, peace, grace, and justice of God.

 

            During our trip to Cuba with the United Church of Christ Cuba Study Seminar, our group met with Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico – the current president of the Cuban Council of Churches – and he shared a tidbit about the Cuban Revolution that was never taught in my Latin American history classes in Brazil. Rev. Dopico, a Presbyterian minister in Havana, said that the Cuban Revolution is also known in Cuba as the “Evangelical Revolution.” I should point out that in Cuba all Protestant churches are defined as “evangelical” but they do not necessarily have much in common with Evangelicalism in the US. While in Cuba, our group did have the opportunity to worship in two Baptist churches and, judging by what I heard and saw, Cuban churches are more conservative and inward looking than the congregations of the United Church of Christ, but Rev. Dopico told our UCC group that at the time of the Cuban Revolution there was a growing sense of “holy discomfort” among the Protestant churches of Cuba. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which took the side of Spain during the war for Cuban independence and sided with Fulgencio Batista, the brutal dictator that was backed by the United States, Cuban Protestant ministers were usually part of the lower classes and ministered among the poorest of the poor. They heard the cry of the less privileged in Cuba and witnessed the injustice of an economic system that favored the rich and ruling élites at the expense of the poor and black Cubans. Many pastors and faithful church leaders saw the Revolution as a way to resist the brutality of the dictatorship, to end the extra-judicial killings of young Cuban men and women who longed for a better future, and to bring about changes that would transform Cuba into a free country and into a more just society.

 

            Fidel Castro himself defined the Cuban Revolution in words that one could easily describe as being Christian in essence. At least, this was the feeling Pete and I shared when we read Fidel’s words about the Revolution. Here are the words Castro chose to define the Revolution: “Revolution is to have a clear sense of the historic moment, it is to change everything that must be changed; it is complete equality and liberty, it is to be treated and treat others as human beings, it is to claim our freedom on our own and through our own efforts, it is to challenge the dominant, powerful forces within and outside the social and national boundaries; it is to defend values in which we believe at the price of any sacrifice; it is modesty, unselfishness, altruism, solidarity and heroism; it is never to lie or violate ethical principles, it is the deep conviction that there is no force in the world capable of defeating the power of truth and ideas; it is unity, it is independence, it is the struggle for our dreams of justice for Cuba and the world.”[3]

 

            Given the complicated and complex history between the United States and Cuba, I want to make it clear that I am not in any way trying to defend or justify the Cuban Revolution, but after hearing Fidel’s words about the Revolution it is not too difficult to see why so many Protestant ministers took the side of the Cuban revolutionaries. In many ways the Cuban pastors’ decision to fight against Batista, the Cuban dictator, is very similar in nature to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in several plots to overthrow and then to assassinate Hitler. As I said a moment ago, the Cuban pastors were experiencing a sense of “Holy Discomfort” with the darkness of their days and many of them were ready to stand up against the gods of this world, against their injustice, violence, exploitation, and untimely death sentences. They knew the truth on the ground. They understood how powerful forces of darkness threatened the lives of people they served. But they also had faith in the repetitive message of our Holy Scriptures, which promises that light still shines even when darkness is a thick as night. And many Cuban pastors and church members decided to sacrifice their own lives to bring light into history and to transform the truth on the ground.

 

            Today, as you know, is the Sunday when most Protestant churches around the world celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. I love this story because there is so much in it that we cannot fully explain and understand and yet what happens in this story says a lot about why the worship service, our weekly gathering, cannot disconnect us from the truth about our world but has to make us somehow discontent with the darkness of our days and give us a sense of “Holy Discomfort.”

 

            This is a crucial moment in the life of Jesus and his disciples. After spending much of his ministry in Galilee where he was relatively safe, Jesus is getting ready to begin his journey toward Jerusalem. On the way, he asks his disciples who they think he is. After an awkward silence, Peter makes a declaration of faith no one had ever made: “You are the Messiah.”[4] It seemed as if at least Peter had gotten who Jesus is. But as quickly as those words left Peter’s mouth, Peter started arguing with Jesus when he heard Jesus speak about his impending suffering and death. It was impossible for Peter to imagine that Jesus was a different kind of Messiah. Peter could not bring himself to accept that Jesus was ready to take up the cross and sacrifice his own life for the holy dream of a world where all human beings are free to love, to live peace, to pursue happiness and to enjoy the gift of life without the darkness of hunger, poverty, fear, prejudice, intolerance, abuse or violence. So Jesus decides to take Peter, James, and John – some of the first disciples he called – to the mountaintop where they have an unprogrammed, never-to-be-repeated, life-changing religious experience. As Barbara Brown Taylor once put it, on the Mount of Transfiguration God took God’s glory and tucked it inside Jesus[5] and when the disciples saw that bright light they had a moment of theophany. They understood that God was in Christ and with Christ doing something they could not fully explain but that would change human lives and the course of human history.

 

            It felt good to be on the mountaintop so close to the divine, more fully aware of God’s presence, so sure of the light that shines and even darkness cannot overcome it, and so far from the ground truth of human suffering, pain, brokenness, and addictions. I don’t blame Peter for trying to capture that moment, prolong it, hold it inside a tent, keep that holy moment safe from life on the ground; but the Transfiguration fades away and the disciples are left once again with the human being Jesus. And the same Jesus who took them to the mountaintop is now leading them back down to the real world where the disciples will have to live with the “Holy Discomfort” of knowing that the light of God always flows downhill into the darkness of our days, into the reality on the ground of history.

 

            Would it make any difference if we did not celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ? This is a tough question to answer, but I like the wisdom of Walter Brueggemann on this matter. Brueggemann said that the Church will never be able to duplicate what happened at the Mount of Transfiguration, but we can cherish the memory of that moment. We can remember that extraordinary day in the life of Jesus, Peter, James and John over and over again. And each time we set aside a special Sunday to celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ, we make our predictable, repetitive, and ordinary worship service into a life-changing religious experience because our remembering is infused with the extraordinary light of God.[6]

 

            You and I have been together in this holy space for almost an hour. We have remembered the Light of God that shines through Christ. Now, the only thing left to do is to carry this light out into Plymouth and Central New Hampshire. And I hope the memory of this day in Jesus’ ministry will give every one of us a holy feeling of discomfort with the darkness of the world and a renewed commitment to let light shine out of the darkness. May our holy discomfort with the truth on the ground of our society, our country and our world inspire us to join the ongoing Christian struggle to make the Earth a better place for Cubans, for Americans, for all humanity and all living beings.

 

            And by the way, if you don’t get why this sermon sounds like so many others, I invite you to come back next Sunday.

 

            Amen.

 

 

[1] Martin Luther King Jr.’s commencement address at Oberlin College. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” June 1965, Oberlin OH. [http://www2.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/MLK/CommAddress.html]

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, & James D. Newsome. “Texts for Preaching,” pp. 175-177.

[3] I saw Fidel’s definition of the Revolution on a sign at the central plaza in Santa Clara, Cuba.

[4] Mark 8:29.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Bread of Angels,” Glory Doors, p. 6.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, & James D. Newsome. “Texts for Preaching,” pp. 175-177

Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.

 

 

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