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Archive for the ‘Prophetic’ Category

Why an “evil” Atticus Finch is good for us

In Discrimination, Education, Multiculturalism, Prophetic, Racial Justice, Radical Welcome on July 12, 2015 at 12:26 am

by Ryan P. Sirmons

I’m glad that Atticus Finch turns out to be less-than-ideal in Harper Lee’s upcoming sequel to her 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Go Set a Watchman has revealed that the sainted Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a segregationist. The man who counseled his children for racial justice and humanity shifts in his old age to a Klan-rally-attendiatticus-finchng person who is concerned about ‘Negroes’ attending the same schools as white children. This revelation has caused outrage around the internet, coffee shops, and living rooms. Careers, sermons, moral certitude, and high school inspiration have all come from Atticus Finch. Even a clothing line is named after him. But because we’ve grown up and become disillusioned with our former hero like Jean Louise (known to us as Scout), we can now have the conversation about whether it is truly best for the white, male, and debonair Atticus Finch to be the portrait of racial justice. We can discuss who really should be representing those who have been historically oppressed in our society.

Nobody likes being disillusioned. We were told as children to look up to certain people in our lives and try to model our lives on them. People like George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Neil Armstrong were heroes of my childhood (not to mention Robert E. Lee, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Finding out that these heroes have character flaws excites an existential crisis in our own lives. We ask, “Why did I follow that person all my life if he or she turned out to be wrong about this or that?” Yet becoming disillusioned helps us to see the very human nature of a person, with gifts as well as flaws, that we all have. Facing head-on an existential crisis and seeing the good and the bad, the flaws and the gifts, helps us develop empathy and courage to act despite not having the qualities we think we need in order to act. It might remind us that we, too, are capable of leading things despite our own flaws.

Atticus represented a type of benevolent moral dignity that powerful white men could exhibit in the twentieth century American South. He was strong, certain, and used his authority as an attorney for the good of racial equality and the emphasis of mental illness. Yet we forget that the book is told from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl who is entirely smitten with her father. Everything he does is cast in a righteous light. Shouldn’t we have been surprised during our ninth grade reading of this book that in Atticus we have no real moral failing? He’s just too good. He’s the scandal-free George Washington. He’s akin to a high-brow comic book hero, but without a mortal flaw that almost stops him from doing good. It is no wonder that Harper Lee waited so long to share this story with us: she needed to wait until America grew up so it could, like Jean Louis, deal with her disillusionment about her parent. The backstory of Atticus presumably reveals, if Kakutani’s review is accurate, that he was a white Southern man who held typical views of other men of his generation. Of course those men did good things, too. But to try and maintain them as saintly good men today is folly. America needs to wake up and realize that Atticus cannot be our hero. Atticus cannot be the agent of change we need to include all our sisters and brothers in a united country. The old South from which he came is a figment of our imagination, idealized in a childlike light out of which we need to shake our national discourse.

Of course change is certainly helped along by allies of those oppressed who are in the majority. I’m a straight white male; almost any cause to which I lend my voice is as an ally. Yet it would be problematic if my voice was still in the leading position of authority after the initial work is done. The voices that do not represent the (white male) voice of the majority need to come out of cultures and norms formed differently than mine, using words, language, and music I don’t understand and wearing clothes I never would consider “respectable.” It’s possible I might resent this, not accepting it as responsible. In some ways I already resent this, as I begin to recognize that I may need to sit on the sidelines of political and moral leadership because I am a white male who knows other voices need to be heard. Based purely on speculation as the book doesn’t come out until Tuesday, I think this is what happened to Atticus. He becomes embittered as the people he once championed find their voice and no longer need him to be their savior. I think this is happening across America as we grow up.

  I feel that the dream of America is one where diverse cultures and voices can share in leading our people. We need new immigrant voices, the voices of black and brown people, women and LGBT people, to be in positions of leadership. Atticus Finch, and those of us from his background, cannot be the voice of a new America in which cultural difference is a symbol of our unity. An “evil” Atticus is the person who resents this change and challenge to his authority. An “evil” America is one that attempts to preserve this privilege, just as a child attempts to preserve the sanctity of its hero. It is the child who, like me, clung to a Confederate flag at eight years of age because I truly thought it was a symbol of my heritage. Its racial past never crossed my little mind. I even declared gray my favorite color because it was the uniform color of the South’s noble heroes who I grew up hearing and reading about. I’ve grown up now and see that the romantic dream of the South never existed, and that battle flag I bought in a gift shop in Michigan was revived mid-twentieth century as a symbol of privilege and hate. Even Robert E. Lee learned to get over it and advised a Confederate widow to “[d]ismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans.” It’s been disillusioning for me to grapple with my own inherent racism, sexism, and privilege. But in doing it, I am able be part of a new way for America.

Scout grows up and becomes Jean Louise. She leaves Alabama and moves to New York City. No doubt she encounters different cultures and racial empowerment in the heady 1960s. Upon her return to her roots she recognizes that her father fails to be the hero she may have thought the South needed. This suggests a realization we as a country need to have. Jean Louise, and women like her, will need to become the leaders and the voices for change. Tom Robinson’s children need to be the new leaders, using their language and customs to have equal ownership of the country they change. It’s sad but true that we need a real, rather than idealized, Atticus Finch to remind us of our responsibility to empower those who are oppressed. It gives me a hopeful joy that Ms. Lee thinks we have the maturity and capability to be disillusioned with Atticus. It’s a vote of confidence from the writer of our (dare I say it) former “national novel” that we can begin to write a new chapter for equality in our country. Ms. Lee has, most likely, signaled that we can pass the torch of national leadership from Atticus to Jean Louise and Tom Robinson. It doesn’t hurt, either, that we grew up knowing Jean Louise as Scout. She can’t be lionized as Atticus was. We know her faults and her prejudices. Despite this she can now be a national leader, imperfect, but herself. This can pass to all new leaders and free us from hero-worship to empathy and camaraderie. This gives me hope for the children I see, and the child my multiracial wife is expecting, for an America that can be free – free from hero worship, free from monoculturalism, and free to have a voice to be heard.

With thanks to the Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear. Our conversations on the need for leadership from underrepresented people, and that those in the majority should step aside to help this happen, helped fuel this thought.

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Breaking the rules: a reflection on locating the sacred in relationship

In 1 Kings, Authenticity, Churches Together, Doubt, Holy Ground, Little Baddow Chapel, Progressive Christianity, Prophetic, Relationality on June 16, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Delivered at Little Baddow Chapel (URC) on Sunday, 16 June 2013

Key Text: 1 Kings 21

You are also welcome to view this sermon delivered as a video on Vimeo.

The Bible teaches us in many different ways. Sometimes, it appears to be very straightforward: the Ten Commandments seem like a clear-cut summary of how we should behave toward one another. The codes of Leviticus appear to lay out laws that everyone should follow for a just and ordered society, although many will convincingly assert that some of those laws are out-of-date or written for an entirely different time and place then today. Even then, they are not irrelevant, and we should look to the overriding spirit of those laws to create social cohesion today. But as often as we get clear-cut instructions, we also receive stories as a way of teaching us. Many of us have grown up with stories full of rich characters and bright imagery. These teach us lessons and morals to help us discern how we should interact with one another for the good of all human flourishing. Today’s story from first Kings is such a lesson. It tells of what happens when unbridled power is held to be the highest human value, and also how God raises up prophets to speak truth to that power.

We have encountered this story before, when we were learning about the “Bad Girls of the Bible” in our series last November. Then, we focused on the character of Jezebel. We learned that she is not to be treated as evil incarnate. We learned instead to think of her as someone who had been taught that her highest values should be the authority of the state, of which she as Queen was a functionary. We took pity on Jezebel. She was a smart woman who dedicated her life to the ruthless pursuit of making her husband a great king. She misunderstood that greatness does not come from raw power and might, and we focused on how important it is to hold in our own lives values which reject power and might as right and to teach that to others.

Stories are excellent because they contain so many messages and teachings. Today, we are not going to focus so much on Jezebel. Too many wrong-headed sermons have been preached to denounce her, often misunderstanding the facts. Fortunately we can approach this story already with a different understanding. Today we will look at the relationships between Ahab, Naboth, and the prophet Elijah. We will look at where they place their value and how they assign values, and therefore what they determined to be sacred and profane. This should give us pause to think about that which we hold valuable: that which we hold sacred, and that which we hold as profane. How can we share our values by speaking truth to power at times when society respects and values raw, unbridled power over meek and humble relationships to one another?

Let us turn, then, to our story. Did Ahab’s offer seem fair and equitable to you? He is offering Naboth a better field for a generous payment. By the laws of our society, particularly eminent domain laws which stipulate that for the government to secure land, it must offer fair market value, this is a good deal. Given some ancient ideals of monarchy, no such fair deal needed to be made: the king could have simply taken the property on a whim, backed by the raw power to which a monarch was entitled.

Naboth refuses to sell. When he says, “God forbid I sell the land,” there is nothing in that statement that is equivalent to our own modern day usage of the phrase “God forbid.” He really means it, more like “God forbids it.” An active, visceral no. Why would he say this? It is so much more than his personal preference: he does not say “I would rather not” or “I am holding onto the land for my children’s sake.” What he says does not even imply that he particularly likes this vineyard. Not his own will, but God’s, is holding him back from selling the land.

Naboth’s land is part of his tribal inheritance. The ownership of land in our scripture reading today is not determined by individual deeds that can be changed by sale or gambling matches or whatever. Nor is there any guarantee to Naboth that the land he might have received in exchange from Ahab would be in his own tribal group. The Israelites held that the land is decreed to them by God, through community tribal groups that make up the entire nation. Naboth therefore does not see himself as the owner of the land. The owner is God. Naboth sees himself as the steward of this particular patch of land, held in covenant with God to be treated with responsibility while he makes a living off of it through his vineyard. Because the land does not belong to him, Naboth cannot see how he could actually sell the land. He would not even be able to contemplate exploiting the land for his own use now, leaving nothing for the future. Naboth’s view may well have been that he wanted to sell the land: he could have used the money or gained greater wealth from the a better vineyard as promised by Ahab. But his injunction against the sale has nothing to do with his own desires. Envying after more wealth by swapping the land for something else would be a lack of trust in the covenant God has made with him and his entire community.

Before going on, I think we should pause and consider this point. It is not just what Naboth wants as an individual that motivates his decisions. What motivates Naboth is a consideration of the community’s good over his own. Naboth’s world did not have the individual ethic that fuels so much of today’s activity. Everything was held in trust, covered by the covenant relationship with God to the community. There was no imagination of a right to privacy, or that his land was his land and therefore only between him and God to determine how to dispose of it. His covenant relationship with God, mediated in his community, forbids him from selling it. It guides how he decides what is valuable, and therefore that which is sacred and beyond monetary value judgements. All things do not have a price.

Yet in our world, so many things are increasingly geared toward us as an individual and not as a community. We think we are able to determine that which is sacred on an entirely individual basis, with no communication with our community. A few years back, our computer folders became prefaced with “My”. Our electronics frequently begin with the letter “i”, indicating their very specific nature of being owned by an individual. “Smart” applications are designed to tailor shopping activities to our individual interests so that our resources, time and money will be funnelled in specific directions. The very fact that what is considered “intelligent” in machines is the ability to cater to an individual human being should give us pause.

Because of this individual catering, we are increasingly able to imagine that we live in our own bubbles of privacy. This makes us think that our decisions have no impact on others, or even that we have no responsibility to one another in how we make use of our individual time and talents outside of creating happiness for our own individual selves. As Naboth’s tale is showing us, this is an illusion. We live in community, and that communal ethic informs how we determine our values.

How we determine our values comes from where we place the sacred. At one time in human history, the ground of the sacred was thought to literally be the ground: God appeared to Moses in a bush that burned but was not consumed, and told Moses to take off his shoes, for he was standing on holy ground. But the ground itself was not what made it holy: what made it holy was that it was where God made a covenant with Moses, thus elevating the relationship between God and Moses as that which is holy. The land which Naboth owned was sacred to his tribal family. By association with that relationship, it is holy ground. It is holy ground because it represents a relationship between God and God’s people. It is not holy because someone decreed it to be so. It is holy because it is itself a relationship between the people of God and God. The relationship between people and God, a relationship which is lived in the way we treat one another, exceeds any value we could otherwise assign it – especially monetary value, the terms in which Ahab thinks, and perhaps which we are also tempted to think.

As people of faith, we are challenged to see the world in a new way: to value that which is around us not on monetary, measurable worth, but rather to look at value based upon how sacred it is; how integral it is to being the ground of our relationships.

Ahab’s behavior is both poor leadership and poor citizenship. He ignored the importance of land as the ground of the covenant relationship of God with the people, and tried to enrich himself at the expense of others. When we remove ourselves from the ground of our shared life, we are unable to understand the needs and lives of the people right next to us. A church in this sense needs to be a team working to counteract this individualistic tendency in our society. To counteract that tendency and become a group turned toward community, we must ourselves always work in concert with one another, even and especially when we disagree with the opinions of another member. This is acting in ways which make where we worship and where we work into sacred places. And Oh, when we do this, we stand as a light on a hill for all to follow! Not because we are more saintly than any other person, but because we recognize the importance of relationships between ourselves and each and every person that moves in our community. We demonstrate this in our speech and our actions. We make this real when we take stands in big and small ways for justice and for peace and for love. We make this real when we look to our church finances and prioritize them in this holy sense. To put it in context of this passage, it is when we become like Elijah.

Elijah speaks truth to power. At the end of our story, Ahab is enjoying the benefits of his vegetable garden. He did not ask Jezebel how Naboth came to die: he appears to assume that ignorance is bliss, and thus blissfully enjoys the vegetable garden that was once Naboth’s vineyard. God raises prophets in this world to speak truth to power: Elijah was that person. He confronted Ahab, and Ahab repented bitterly for the actions which he did not instigate, but by which he benefitted from ill-gotten gains. Today, through and in Christ, the church is that people. Where Elijah removed the feigned ignorance of Ahab, we are also called to make apparent those things in our world that are ill-gotten. I know you can think of a few things we need to make apparent: clothes that are produced by child labor and/or in unsafe factories; banking sectors making money off gullibility; fruit growers cheated out of contracts for lower supermarket pricing; coffee, tea and cocoa laborers paid poor wages for our enjoyment over something as innocent as a cuppa. When we spend our money and time to enjoy something, we need to realize that we are doing so much more than a simple transaction: we are covenanting with the whole chain of logistics which brought that good or service to us. Is that chain holy? Is it profane? Does it respect the people who participate in it? Does it give them enough? Or not enough for them to flourish as human beings? Are we willing to point out to the powerful of our world systemic injustices that keep people from having enough? Are we willing to go without in order to protest injustice in our supply chains?

As a church we understand how relationships are holy in and of themselves and therefore make things, such as land or a church, for some place and some time, holy. We as a church live those relationships as we act like Elijah, speaking truth to power when the holiness of a relationship is breached for individual selfish gain. As we go out into the world everyday, and as we gather in this place every week and more often than that, let us make sacred space together, in the presence of God and each other. Amen.

Radical welcome and “take up your cross”

In Authenticity, Grace, Jesus, Matthew, Prophetic, Radical Welcome on June 6, 2013 at 10:28 am

For Morning Chapel at Westminster College, 6 June 2013.

No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” So goes one of my most-loved mottoes from my denomination, the United Church of Christ. If I am engaged in trying to radically welcome a person to a church. It goes well on flyers and billboards, or spoken at some point during the service when people are invited to stand up and make themselves known so that they can be accosted by the diaconate at coffee following the service. It is far better than the ubiquitous “All are welcome” sign that I suspect comes with the rejoinder, “All are welcome: to become just like us.” It brought me through the church door when I was a teenager, and the concept kept me going back throughout my adult life. No matter where I was, I could always come back to the church. It is a message we need to hear in more than just a church concept; it needs to be a part of our cultural community fabric.

But it is only a partial concept. It stops short of any radical change demanded either of the church or the person coming in. Nor did Jesus say “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This places the locus for action no longer on coming into a place, but going outward. This is about being a people of action. It also challenges us: if “no matter who we are, we are welcome here” is to be our motto for church, then we are also implicitly saying that we are content with whomever we are and whomever anyone else in. Gone is the radical nature of church which challenges people to get engaged, viscerally and without limit, to the work that the church is called to be in community. Church is, as far as I can tell after three years of training in this College, this Federation, this University, a place for challenging. Without challenges of self-denial, we create an atmosphere of entitlement both within the church and in the individuals. I suspect this creates many sort of issues.

This passage of self-denial serves as the crux of Jesus’ theology. For Calvin self-denial stands in radical opposition of every shrewd Christian adjustment to the circumstances. The commentator Ulrich Luz says this: “The contradiction which arrests [this biblical passage] is that [hu]man[kind] is required to make the greatest possible sacrifice to dedicate [its] whole life as a sacrifice – and wherefore? There is no wherefore. “Then it is madness,” says the understanding. There is no wherefore, because there is an infinite wherefore.”

This self-denial lies at the crux of what I have learned in this place. It is a self-denial that is undertaken not for any reward or wherefore, but because this is what it means to follow Christ. It is a self-denial that allows for the formation of communities that can be truly inclusive in actions so vibrant that no poster boards are needed to advertise it, no slick websites, but because we are shaping ourselves toward that cross, Christ-like to one another. But we also live in an entitlements society, where we deserve this and that. I’m no saint in this regard: I have far more self-denial to learn. Nor am I arguing for Christian asceticism for the sake of asceticism. I am saying that self-denial is about all having enough, just enough. As I look at statistics about which children perform the best, I cannot help but see a resonance with those that are neither rich nor poor but who live on just enough.

This culture of enough is catching on, and I hope in our self-denial as Christian leaders we can harness some of this energy. “Join Wall Street. Save The World,” a recent article in The Washington Post, details how young people are living on just enough – which their contemporaries might call ascetic, while giving the vast majority of their inflated salaries to charities around the world. The people doing this want to impact their world, and make good things happen. I think the world is looking for our message, looking for this challenging message of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Without wherefore or why, beyond reason itself. These young professionals are not doing this out of a professed faith, but because they know that they need to do something positive in the world. What we as people of faith bring is the grace of God, something that can resonate with the experiences that they want and desire to share. This is good news both for the church, her ministers, and the people.

The journey, a word I use hesitantly because it is too linear to describe the process by which we follow Christ, is indeed a long one. But as I prepare to leave this place now, I look forward to it. While I think we have started here, there is still much that needs to be done in order to pick up the cross. 

Speak!

In Jeremiah, Jesus, Little Baddow Chapel, Luke, Prophetic on February 4, 2013 at 10:13 am

A homily for a communion service at Little Baddow Chapel (URC) on Sunday, 3 Feb 2013. Our focus texts were Jeremiah 1.4-10 and Luke 4.21-30.

What could I say right now that would just make you furious? What would make you really upset? What could I say that would prompt you to drive me out of town, and force me off a cliff? That’s what Jesus said. And not only that, but he’s a local star. This is Joseph’s son! He arrives, and he tells them some gracious things, about which they are really excited. They have heard the miracles he has performed in Capernaum, and they’re ready for those miracles to happen to them.

Does this make sense? Here they are saying appreciative things about Jesus, marveling at how this really is Joseph’s son, the boy who used to run down the streets, who trained to be a carpenter? Why would Jesus rebuke them? They are being nice to him. He has been gracious to them. He’s been accepting how nice they are toward him. He’s being what we would call “civil.” But they begin to want to heal them, as if he were some sort of magician. We can almost hear someone asserting that certainly they are as worthy as those people in Capernaum to receive miraculous cures.

This is all too much for Jesus. This is when Jesus goes into revolutionary mode. He says: “No prophet is ever accepted into his own country.” They could argue this, could they not? Not only are they tolerating his presence, but they are welcoming him into their presence. If he wants to call himself a prophet, that’s fine by them. But really, are they welcoming him as a prophet, or as a magician? The world of Jesus’ time was as full of mystical healers then as it is of quack doctors on the internet peddling miraculous cures now. But he has not come to heal them magically. He has come to bring them a message.

Hospitality is a serious thing in Jesus’ time. It was a requirement, a duty, to be hospitable. The people of this town are being more than hospitable, but he has just announced that he, the prophet, is not welcome here. This cannot be well-accepted. But again, is he being welcomed unconditionally for who he is, or have they placed conditions on the welcome in order for him to be whom they want him to be – a healer, a magician?

He says something which angers them to their very depth of being. He suggests that God’s prophets, God, the Holy One of Israel, actually performs miracles on people who are not part of his chosen people, Israel. These are people whom these Galileans don’t like. God’s preference, he says, is not just for the Israelites, but for all those who act in obedience to God, and are not just desirous of it. How many times have we asked, God, if you’ll only do this for me, I’ll do x. It doesn’t appear to work like that.

Jesus gives two examples. The first is of the widow of Zarepath, a town in Sidonia, a coastal town in Lebanon. There are many widows in Israel, he says, but the prophet of God first goes to this one. It is she who receives God’s blessing, and whose son Elijah raises from death. The audience would have known this story. But like us, they might have identified with it as themselves, forgetting the key ingredient: this is happening to an outsider, a foreigner, someone who God surely wouldn’t be wasting time upon? Another, more subtle point is raised: are not all people of God charged with taking care of the widows? If this commandment were being obeyed, then God would not have to take any action to make it so: it wouldn’t matter to the community that the widows in other places were receiving God’s prophets. Further, when the prophet Elijah spoke to the widow after invoking God’s name, she obeyed even though by her standards her actions would have left her destitute. She obeyed the prophet, and placed no expectations upon him.

The second example is Naaman, the Syrian general, an avowed enemy of Israelites for many years. Having a skin disease was a serious problem in Israelite culture: it automatically made someone “unclean”, and to be unclean effectively made on untouchable. Skin diseases were often outside of the control of people, and yet were socially fatal to receive. In the past, English translators have translated this as “leprosy,” but really it could be any skin condition, no matter how small. Jesus recalls Naaman to their memory, who travels to Israel to receive a cure from the prophet Elisha. Now Naaman wants something, a cure, but he also wants it on his terms. Elisha, however, sets the terms and doesn’t budge despite all the grandeur of this Syrian general’s retinue. Naaman grumbles at first, but he then obeys Elisha’s commands, and is washed clean of his skin disease in the River Jordan. Jesus’ more subtle point here will not be lost on his Galilean listeners: engagement with those who are suffering from skin disease and are, therefore, unclean, is part of what is needed to help them overcome their problems. Instead, it was cultural to blame the person with the skin disease for having it; if they could not blame the individual, they blamed it as a punishment arising from a misdeed of an ancestor. These Galileans could easily say, as we often do ourselves, “it’s not our problem.” Jesus makes it clear that even if we don’t act or have any involvement, it very much is just as much our problem as everyone else’s.

In order to awake the Galileans from their reverie, Jesus throws their lack of selfless hospitality into their faces. They are being hospitable only because they want something. They want him to heal them, just like he did with those rich folk down in Capernaum. They want him to make all their social ills go away. They want him to be the Messiah and kick the Romans out of their lives, and put them back in charge. Heck, they want him to do a lot of things for them. And therefore, they’re being nice. They are trying to charm him. They are not doing what God commanded. They are not protecting widows, nor are they helping those afflicted with uncontrollable ailments. They’re lining themselves up to be fixed, and yet have no record of obedience to the prophets.

Jesus challenges them by not being nice. He speaks out. And we remember his words. How many people do we have recorded saying nice things to the Galileans? How many times do we actually have Jesus himself saying nice things to people? Sure, we have him talking about ideas that sound nice, and his behavior is exemplary. But how often do we have him simply talking nicely? Or any other of our biblical prophets, for that matter. Do we recall them being nice, or do we recall them challenging?

So if the Church is the body of Christ, part of our purpose in life is to challenge ourselves and one another to act upon commandments. We must ask ourselves, how much of what we say is “nice” or sidesteps the issue? How much of what we say is challenging? How much of that is back up by our own patterns of living? It is probably mostly nice, and very little of the challenging. As followers of Jesus, should we not seek ways to change that the other way-around?

Our Scriptures are loaded with statements of people expressing their resentment against Jesus. Isaiah 52 likewise concluded that people would make whomever the Messiah was suffer. Yet as our reading suggested, people were waiting for a Messiah that would do what they wanted him to do – and not do what would bring about abundant life for all of God’s people. Jesus was not that guy.

Does this mean that the church needs to be making itself unpopular with the locals? Perhaps not purposely. But recall back to a previous lesson we’ve learned about the mustard tree. If the kingdom of God sprouts into a mustard tree, then it is, by the standards of its time, an undesirable weed with a pungent odor. It would be completely ridiculous to want it. Yet this unwelcome presence to society is a much-sought refuge for the birds of the air and the creatures of the land – the widows and afflicted of our day – the people on the fringe.

This unwelcome presence should be the result of being Christ’s body on earth: radically welcoming to the point of hanging out with outcasts, affirming of difference to the point of being with society’s lepers, and outspoken to the point of annoyance regarding issues that matter to our community. We are called to be this mustard-tree to imagine a way of being in the world regardless of whether or not we think it practical, and follow in that way. These qualities, although grating to those who did not wish to be changed by them, were what brought people to Jesus in droves.

There is a very important caution here. Such outspokenness and prophetic behavior can make a hubristic assumption that we are always in the right. We’re not. We make some pretty awful mistakes, and historically have forced some terrible things to happen because of what we call our “convictions.” Humility is required of us – it is part of journeying in the way of Jesus. If we are acting out of love, and not simply that ancient human temptation to be “in the right” or for our own gain, then we recall and live the words of 1 Cor 13 – love is patient, love is kind. Where love is present, and in the spirit of love, we must challenge and correct those around us not by being brash and loud about it – but engaging them with ourselves and accepting that this will make us vulnerable. Being vulnerable means we might get viewed as the widow, the outcast, the societally awkward, the wrong, out of no fault of our own. But this is true love, this is our calling. If we are to love, it is not some namby-pamby thing of nice sentimental thoughts. It is being willing to take the blame for the ones whom you engage with. You could easily say, then, that the one who was without sin, Jesus, was blamed by the authorities, those people in power, for the manners and outcastedness of those with whom he walked alongside.

So, I ask you again: what is it you could say, that is true, that needs to be said to effect change in the community?